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O’Fallon City Council proposes investigation of current council member

The O’Fallon City Council has proposed a bill to investigate the conduct of Ward 5 council member Katie Gatewood.

The bill (No. 7298), sponsored by Ward 3 council member Dale Kling, proposes retaining special counsel Joseph G. Lauber at a cost of $275 per hour to assist the council “in conducting an investigation of the conduct of Councilmember Katie Gatewood with respect to the accuracy and circumstances of certain statements made by Councilmember Gatewood and Councilmember Gatewood’s conduct in the course of a confidential personnel matter.”

According to sources close to the matter, the genesis of the investigation appears to be the hiring of Police Chief Philip DuPuis due to the loss of liability insurance covering DuPuis in his interim role with the city. The hiring was done without interviewing or considering any other candidates, contrary to what the council had planned to do and what had been communicated to residents in prior council meetings. 

The bill was given a first reading at the March 11 council meeting, and if normal process and timing are followed, will be given a second reading and vote for passage at the March 25 council meeting.

O’Fallon officials did not explain why this action is being pursued via a bill (proposed ordinance) instead of a simple resolution. Kling did not reply to interview requests; however, his sponsorship of the bill is not an indication of his position on it. O’Fallon’s procedures simply require at least one council member or the mayor to sponsor a bill before it can be considered.

Mid Rivers Newsmagazine sent a Freedom of Information Act/Missouri Sunshine Law request to the city asking how many times its Charter provisions, in regard to using a special counsel and an internal investigation, have been used against a council member, elected official or employee of the city. 

On March 17. the city clerk verified that the city has no records of such an activity and that this is a first.

Joseph G. Lauber
(Source: City of O’Fallon)

Materials provided with the bill included background on Lauber and his firm Lauber Municipal Law, LLC. He is a specialist in municipal law, and currently is the appointed city attorney for the Missouri cities of Lawson, Urich, Peculiar, Lake Winnebago, Butler, Odessa, Grain Valley, Plattsburg, Know Noster, Holt, New Hampton and Sedalia. His resume includes: “Assisted in-house client as special counsel to develop procedures and documents needed in impeachment and removal of an elected official.” His listed articles and publications include “Mitigating Municipal Liability: A City Attorney’s Practical Guide in Building Consensus and Improving the City’s Operation.”

The hiring of DuPuis took place by roll call vote of 7-3 in a closed council session on Jan. 7, followed by a public vote at the Jan. 14 council meeting to ratify the mayor’s appointment of DuPuis. The vote had the appearance of being unanimous, although there were only 7 yes votes.

Just prior to the Jan. 14 vote, Gatewood stated: “Concerns were brought to me by fellow police officers that I believe we should have taken time to vet and prove them false and inaccurate.”  While she mentioned the concerns, she would not provide the names, even in closed council sessions, of the police officers who made them. Gatewood was not alone in her concerns about the hasty way in which DuPuis was hired. Two other council members also expressed concerns.

O’Fallon Chief of Police Philip DuPuis (Source: City of O’Fallon)

On Jan. 14, council member Deanna Smith (Ward 1) said, “I am opposed to the placing of a permanent chief without a properly vetted, fair and expanded process.

“In my opinion, hiring through an appointment due to the loss of liability [insurance] by our vendor could give the appearance of impropriety and poor decision making. From a law enforcement standpoint, things have dramatically changed and will continue to change into the future. It has become ever-increasingly important to include and partner with the community. With that in mind, we created a city council subcommittee at the last council meeting to develop an expanded process to identify the new police chief.  That process would have included valuable feedback and involvement from the community. This subcommittee was willing to put in the hard work to find the right and most fitting police chief for the residents of O’Fallon. It should be incredibly disappointing to the O’Fallon residents that due to this appointment, your voices now have been silenced.”

Council member Debbie Cook (Ward 5) also expressed concern on Jan. 14, saying: “I, too, have several issues tonight about the vote to ratify the mayor’s appointment. I don’t feel like we are being very transparent in our selection process.”

On Jan. 14, council member Jeff Kuehn (Ward 4) spoke in favor of DuPuis’s appointment and about 30 O’Fallon police officers in civilian clothes applauded loudly and cheered the ratification that evening.

Russ Gatewood delivering Citizen Comments (Source: O’FallonTV)

A similar number, this time residents, filled the council chamber for the March 11 meeting. From their reactions to comments, most seemed to be there in support of Gatewood.

Russ Gatewood, the council member’s husband, spoke on her behalf.

“The city leaders continue to lead you down a path that makes you look foolish, so they can absolve themselves from any accountability and put it on your shoulders,” he told the council.  “I don’t understand why you keep getting led by these people. Sooner or later federal or state investigators will be here to look into these violations. You do not protect whistleblowers.

“Katie is a former police officer, as I am, and this bill defames her. She has more integrity than anyone I know.  The chief and the city administrator are going after whistleblowers. The original whistleblower was me. I’ll be happy to answer any of your questions. And I spoke to many of you, so I also should be named on the bill for special investigation.”

Russ Gatewood’s comments left little question as to why he believes the council is calling for an investigation.

Katie Gatewood speaking at the March 11 council meeting (Source: O’FallonTV)

During the ward reports portion of the agenda, Gatewood said she “had asked to be elected to the council to bring transparency, fiscal conservatism and fight for the residents and employees.” She said she had spent time to get to know the city’s rules and its charter “to be sure she operated in the proper ways in her role.”

“I obviously do not agree with this bill, and as my husband said, he is the resident I have been protecting,” Gatewood said. “I want everyone to know that I agreed to the investigation, but I agreed it was to be with the Highway Patrol because I know the integrity and honor that they have. They would have sent an investigator to look into it from Jefferson City. 

“But they (the council) claim that this attorney would be fair and impartial, but I know they wouldn’t.

“To put my name on this ordinance next to the word impropriety, meaning that I somehow am improper, unsuitable, inappropriate, offensive in speech, and (exhibit) unconventional behavior between sexes, is utterly preposterous. Anyone who knows me knows that simply is not the case.” 

Her comments were loudly applauded by the audience.

Deana Smith addressing the council (source: O’FallonTV)

Prior to conducting the bill’s first reading on March 11, Smith spoke on behalf of Gatewood and against the bill. 

“It should be very troubling to every resident that Bill No. 7298 is a result of Councilwoman Gatewood privately bringing forward some concerns that were shared with her confidently by a resident,” Smith said.

Smith clarified that Gatewood and two other council members requested an investigation, as provided by the charter, section 3.8; however, the investigation did not happen. Instead, she said, “It appears Councilwoman Gatewood as the messenger is being fervently attacked and the message is being blatantly ignored.

“Unfortunately, this does look like a witch hunt to me. Is it simply that they are threatened by a strong woman who is not willing to go along to get along?  Because this is not how democracy works.”

Smith claimed that Bill No. 7298 is a classic case of “cancel culture” because there are a few that do not like being held accountable and want to silence Gatewood.

“To my knowledge there is not a formal complaint that establishes any grounds for an investigation,” Smith said. “In my opinion, the information provided to this council by the administration was heavily curated, lacking factual evidence of any misconduct and extremely subjective.”

“Gatewood also has been denied her right to due process as provided by the U.S. Constitution and the O’Fallon City Charter section 3.6 on forfeiture of office and removal that specifically states: ‘Council member being first given the opportunity, together with his or her witnesses, to be heard before the City Council.’ The charter further specifies for cause, cause being convicted of something involving a crime. There is no crime here, folks.”

Smith said she believes the real tragedy is that Gatewood was simply exercising her fiduciary responsibility to residents by ensuring that tax dollars are safeguarded against potential liability by disclosing valid concerns to the council and requesting a 3.8 investigation. 

Smith said she also opposes the bill because it “suggests that the residents pay an attorney $275 an hour with no cap on the number of hours to perpetuate this tomfoolery that appears to be an open-ended investigation.”

“If this woman’s constitutional rights are permitted to be violated, what protects the constitutional rights of the 90,000-plus residents of O’Fallon?” Smith asked. Then, she urged everyone on the council dais to look in the mirror. 

“If this is allowed to unjustly happen to Councilwoman Gatewood, it can certainly happen to you,” she said.

After urging residents to contact the mayor and council members to express disdain for Bill No. 7298, she closed with a “slightly altered quote that has been around for a very long time and really rings true today: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’”

Smith’s comments also drew loud and enthusiastic applause from the audience, along with a few “boos.”

Mid Rivers Newsmagazine reached out to the mayor and the other eight council members for comments about this investigation and its circumstances.

Council member Nathan Bibb (Ward 3) replied, saying, “I am astonished that Bill No. 7298, which very clearly states it is calling into question the propriety and investigating the conduct in respect to accuracy and circumstances of statements made by a council member and that member’s conduct relative to a confidential personnel matter has been interpreted to mean “impropriety,” “misconduct,” or that anyone is somehow calling that council member a liar. None of those words have been used by anyone other than the council member and her resident source whom according to statements at our March 11 meeting happens to be her spouse.

“I can assure you of this, if someone in my household ever brought me information I felt was critical to my ability to represent the best interests of the amazing citizens of O’Fallon then I damn sure would not present that information to anyone in any fashion that wasn’t explicitly clear of where that information came from.

“As a Councilmember, I feel it is my duty to our residents to ensure that we, as elected officials, act with transparency and conduct the public’s business properly and ethically. This bill will allow us and the voters to learn the truth of the situation and for us to ultimately make a decision that is in the best interest of our taxpayers and our city.”

“In my opinion there currently is not enough information available for this item to be news worthy. My hope if this article is to be published then it is short and sticks to the facts of the posted documents so that if there are any residents currently unaware of the upcoming March 25th Council Meeting’s “old business” item then they have a chance to reach out to their council representatives and ask questions. Let’s none of us speculate or draw conclusions on this topic until more information is available.”

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