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Wellston Mayor defends Vinita Park agreement

A citizen supportive of the North County Police Cooperative attends the first Wellston city council meeting on Wednesday, June, 3, 2015, after Mayor Nathaniel Griffin (left) forwarded the agreement calling for the disbanding of its police department and contracting with the nearby Vinita Park police department for services. Photo by Christian Gooden,

Mismanagement of public money, missing case files and stalled reforms were among the “serious concerns” cited in an audit released Wednesday of Wellston municipal court.

“My team found widespread problems in the Wellston municipal court that directly impact citizens and require immediate action,” Auditor Nicole Galloway said in a news release.

She gave the court a rating of “poor,” the lowest possible rating from a state audit.

The audit found:

• Some court charges were misspent. The court assessed a $2 charge on all court cases to benefit local domestic violence shelters, collecting nearly $5,000 in 2015, but did not spend it on domestic violence shelter operations. Poor records made it impossible to tell how the money was spent.

• There was little oversight of and largely inaccurate records for bail bonds. The court holds bond money in a bank account to ensure people appear in court. After the case is resolved, any remaining money is supposed to be returned. But court records showed the bond bank account was short by $280,000.

• The city misspent bond money. It used about $90,000 from bond money to lease police cars before the city disbanded its police force in June 2015. City and court officials did not try to resolve discrepancies in court documents or to replace the money.

• Court records were disorganized, incomplete, missing or inaccurate. Galloway said 90 percent of the cases her staff reviewed showed conflicting information between electronic and paper records.

• The court collected court costs, fees and surcharges on dismissed cases, in violation of Missouri law. It amounted to about $25,000 for around 1,000 cases that were dismissed over the period of a year.

• The court did not take actions ordered by the municipal court judge in response to a court reform law that took effect in 2015. It required the court to set case reviews for defendants with unpaid balances to discuss alternative penalties, such as payment plans, community service, and fine forgiveness for low-income defendants. It also required the court to recall all active warrants and issue new summonses to those defendants. As of April, the court had not recalled 21,000 active warrants in its system, which could lead to an inappropriate arrest if a law enforcement officer consulted the old system.

In its response, the city said it was reviewing its policies and procedures to make sure it was in compliance with the law, and checking to make sure its paper and electronic records were consistent. It said it didn’t have enough staff to fully implement the changes ordered by its judge.

In a statement, Wellston Mayor Nathaniel Griffin said city officials had not only welcomed the audit, he had been instrumental in gathering the signatures to initiate it.

“I ran for Mayor to reform and clean up this City,” Griffin said in a statement. The findings “provide our city a clear path to realize this goal.”

Wellston, long ago a manufacturing powerhouse, is one of the area’s smallest and poorest suburbs, with about 2,300 people living in just under one square mile on the northwest edge of St. Louis.

The audit of Wellston’s court is part of an extensive review of municipal courts in the St. Louis area and statewide that was started by former auditor Tom Schweich in the aftermath of unrest in Ferguson.

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