On Friday night, June 24, an O'Fallon Fire Protection District vehicle was parked outside a liquor store 150 miles from home.
Note to public officials: People notice things like this. In fact, they take pictures of things like this.
It was 9:15 p.m. The fire district SUV was at Dick's Liquors on Highway 54 in Osage Beach.
Who wouldn't want a picture of that?
On Tuesday, I received an email from "Ofallontaxpayer" with the pictures, as well as suggested questions to ask.
So I asked. And the answers, I believe, lead to political intrigue within the fire district.
The SUV was driven that night by Dave Hinman, chairman of the fire district's board of directors. You might remember him. He served on the O'Fallon Board of Aldermen back when they were aldermen and not councilmen. Back when I covered O'Fallon. In 2005, he lost to Donna Morrow in his bid for mayor.
A month ago, he and three other representatives from the district attended the annual conference of the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts at the Tan-Tar-A resort near Osage Beach.
Hinman says it was cheaper to drive a district vehicle than for the four of them to take their own cars and claim mileage from the district. The district's reimbursement is 53 cents per mile.
That Friday night, Hinman was in the SUV with two friends who live in the Osage Beach area. They stopped at Dick's Liquors to buy a bottle of wine, cigars and some drink mixers. A mixer is used to make alcoholic drinks, such as margaritas.
Hinman wasn't drinking in the vehicle. He didn't open the wine in the vehicle. He simply bought a bottle of wine that he then transported to his hotel room.
He also says his action violated no district guidelines.
That might be a stretch, in my view, because the guideline specifically forbids carrying alcohol in fire district vehicles, "except as specifically authorized by the board of directors."
So it's OK if a single member of the board, hypothetically, spontaneously decides to make a kegger run in a pumper truck?
Fire Chief Mike Ballmann says he usually drives his personal vehicle to conferences.
"Just in case I want to go to a bar or to a restaurant so I don't have to worry about where my vehicle is or who sees it," he says.
I asked Ballmann if he believes transporting alcohol in a district vehicle is OK.
"He's my boss," Ballmann said of Hinman. "So if it is all right with him I guess it's all right with me."
Anyway, Hinman deliberately parked the SUV far from the entrance, to try to make the vehicle and its "Committed to Protecting Our Community" slogan less conspicuous.
It didn't work. In fact, motorcyclists told Hinman at the store they'd seen someone snapping photos of the SUV.
The very next day someone using the name Raymond Brown sent an email complaining. He said in the email he had already contacted Fox 2 which, in my mind, can mean only one thing (start "Jaws" theme) — Elliott Davis!
But Mr. Brown sent his email to the wrong person. He sent it to Keith Riesberg, the O'Fallon city administrator. The city does not operate the fire department. Riesberg advised Mr. Brown to directly contact the O'Fallon Fire Protection District.
But Mr. Brown never did that. At least he never contacted Hinman or Chief Ballmann.
Nevertheless, Ballmann quickly found out about the email and on June 28, he met with Hinman, who explained what happened.
I didn't know any of this until Tuesday when I received the email, with attached photos, from "Ofallontaxpayer."
I don't know if "Raymond Brown" is the person who sent me my email this week. I don't think it is. I've sent emails to both addresses — asking to speak to them directly — without success.
In looking into this, I asked myself: Why did someone contact me a month after the first complaint? And why would this still be important for someone who hadn't even bothered to complain directly to the fire protection district?
My conclusion is that someone in the fire department wants to embarrass Hinman.
Hinman is in the process of restructuring and streamlining the fire department's top brass. Earlier this month, he and fellow Director Tony Lamantia approved a plan that will create new titles, new responsibilities and save money. No one will be laid off.
Director Bill Laughlin voted against the measure.
Hinman says the changes stem from an in-house survey and will save approximately $7,000 a year.
"Chief Ballmann is not really happy with it all," Hinman told me.
The restructuring affects nine people. In fact, the nine were scheduled tonight (July 28) to meet with the fire district board in consecutive closed meetings to discuss their new positions and responsibilities. Some of the positions involve contracts. (All nine employees, including Ballmann, who has been chief 11 years, accepted their positions under the new organizational structure.)
I asked Ballmann about the restructuring.
"Guys don't stay fire chiefs very long when they have opinions about what their bosses have done," he says.
"There are guys who are unhappy about it," he adds. "But it's like everything else, the fire trucks will keep rolling out the door and we'll keep doing what we're doing."
And by the way, chief: Did you happen to send me an email Tuesday with photos of a district vehicle at a liquor store? Or do you know who did?
No. And no.