Public policy administration grad already applying his knowledge as Pine Lawn alderman
Elwyn Walls was noncommittal when asked recently if he planned to participate in December commencement ceremonies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“I’m so busy, I don’t know,” Walls said as he sat at a table in the Thomas Jefferson Library during a break from research for his final paper in his senior seminar class. “It’s only a piece of paper to me.”
The degree itself wasn’t what led the now 61-year-old retiree of St. Louis Public Schools, where he was a maintenance supervisor, to enroll in courses or begin pursuing his bachelor’s in public policy administration back in 2014.
The man who would go on to run for and win election to the Board of Aldermen in the city of Pine Lawn, Missouri, earlier this year had a more immediate aim. His interest in learning about politics and the way government functions was born out of a desire to help stamp out corruption he saw in the tiny municipality of 3,275 residents in north St. Louis County, less than three miles east of the UMSL campus.
The stories of misdeeds by former Pine Lawn Mayor Sylvester Caldwell and former police officer Steven Blakeney began circulating in news reports a couple of years ago.
Some had colorful detail, including descriptions of Caldwell shaking down the owner of a towing company for payoffs through coded messages like asking for “green Mountain Dew in a cup” in the parking lot of a gas station.
Caldwell wound up pleading guilty to extortion and receiving a 33-month prison sentence in July 2015.
Blakeney, who’s been accused of terrorizing residents for years with arrests on trumped-up charges, was sentenced earlier this fall to 51 months in prison – including five already served under house arrest – after being convicted of civil rights violations for framing mayoral candidate Nakisha Ford Smith.
Walls said he was witness to impropriety long before it started being broadcast throughout the St. Louis area. He first bought property in Pine Lawn about 10 years ago after growing up nearby in Velda City and graduating from Normandy High School in 1973. He has made Pine Lawn his residence since 2013.
He pointed to policing practices he said were overseen by Caldwell, acting simultaneously as the police commissioner, and implemented by officers such as Blakeney that included issuing citations for questionable violations that carried significant fines.
“Their favorite charge for me was disorderly conduct,” he said. “They also arrested me for videotaping in public and expelled me from several board meetings.”
Walls also had read reports of scathing reviews of the city’s financial practices after multiple state audits and wanted to soak in the numbers for himself. He went to the library and read up on the Freedom of Information Act, then submitted requests for the Pine Lawn’s financial statements.
When Walls read through the financial records, the numbers didn’t add up. He saw a mysterious category for revenue labeled simply “Other.”
“I still remember how much it was,” Walls said. “It was $1.71 million, and that $1.71 million was more than every other thing on the financial statement.”
He said he decided to look deeper, filing additional requests for records of all tickets, fines and court costs for every month in the calendar year. They showed the rate at which the city was profiting off residents without clearly disclosing it.
Walls said he confronted the mayor and other administrators with his findings.
His civic-mindedness and willingness to challenge social injustice was likely inherited. He attributes it to his mother, Mary Jean Price Walls, who in 1950 was the first African American applicant to then Southwest Missouri State College – now Missouri State University – and was denied admission despite being the salutatorian of her high school class.
Six decades after that injustice, the school awarded her an honorary degree, and the multicultural center on its campus in Springfield, Missouri, now bears her name.
Elwyn Walls, by 2013, was part of a growing number of citizens voicing concerns about the local government and police department.
He’d gone back to school after retiring from St. Louis Public Schools to get an associate degree in communication arts from St. Louis Community College–Florissant Valley in 2007, and he was doing work as a disc jockey. But he then decided to enroll at UMSL to learn about public policy.
“I see that more in nontraditional students who have had some experience and then want to come back and get education to directly apply and to make an immediate impact on the world around them,” said Anita Manion, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Political Science who has served as Walls’ undergraduate adviser and taught him in Introduction to Public Policy.
Walls offered rave reviews for his experience at UMSL.
“I went through the courses – government, urban politics,” he said. “The courses were very thorough. I had some great instructors – Professor Terry Jones, Anita Manion.”
This semester, he has benefited from the Finish Your Degree Scholarship and the Senior Degree Completion Program.
While he has been working toward his degree these past two years, the municipal government has unraveled in Pine Lawn.
Blakeney was fired in 2014 after he was accused of picking up two women at a bar and drugging them to bring them to his home.
Caldwell resigned after his guilty plea.
With national attention turned on St. Louis County in 2014 in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, Pine Lawn also became one of a number of municipalities whose ticketing practices were called into question by a report in The Washington Post. It said the city issued more than 17,000 tickets in 2013, more than five per every resident.
A subsequent state audit revealed that the more than $1.2 million the city collected from traffic violation fines accounted for 46 percent of its general revenue, exceeding the 30 percent allowed at the time under state law.
The Pine Lawn Coalition is trying to change things. Walls was part of a three-member slate elected to the Board of Aldermen in April.
A month earlier, the old board voted to dissolve the police department and instead contract with the North County Police Cooperative for services.
Walls said the board is committed to working to improve the city’s financial standing by legal means.
“You have to be creative,” he said. “You have to use some of the avenues that they never addressed. You have to seek community development grants. You have to use the resources that you have at hand, and they weren’t using or developing any of those resources.”
He expressed pride to be completing his degree and in the knowledge he has gained because of it.
“I matriculated,” Walls said. “But the valuable asset that I took away from this is the information and being able to immediately implement that information into successful policies for the community, and I look forward to serving the community.”
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