By Jeremy Kohler

Critics of the St. Louis-area municipal courts have long pointed to an absence of oversight in state government that allowed some municipal courts to operate as constitutionally deficient revenue machines.

On Tuesday, Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway said her office would provide some checks against those abuses by looking for them any time her office audits a municipality. She said her office would look for court practices that are unfair or damage the court's impartiality or credibility, review records pertaining to tickets and warrants, and investigate complaints from residents.

The auditor's office has occasionally included municipal courts in its audits of municipalities, usually just to evaluate financial transactions and compliance with court rules or the law. Under state law, residents of a municipality can petition the auditor for an audit; the auditor can start one on her own or at the governor's request.

Last year, then-auditor Tom Schweich announced he was auditing 10 municipal courts to investigate concerns that those courts were concerned more with raising revenue than with meting out justice.

Four courts from St. Louis County made the list: Ferguson, Bella Villa, Pine Lawn and St. Ann. The others were Foley and Winfield, in Lincoln County; Foristell, in St. Charles County; Leadington, in St. Francois County; Linn Creek, in Camden County; and Mosby, in Clay County.

At the time, Schweich said the list was a mix of cities with the highest number of traffic stops per capita, those that generated the most complaints on the auditor's hotline, and those that raised the biggest concerns with elected officials.

Galloway, who was named auditor after Schweich's death this year, said six of those audits, including that of St. Ann, were underway, with four more scheduled to start later this year.

Her office is also separately auditing four other municipal courts, including Wellston. For her new initiative, she said all municipal court audits would give the same scrutiny to fairness as the audits announced by her predecessor.

"I think a distrust of government has increased, and through the audit process, we can hold these municipal courts accountable to their citizens," Galloway said in an interview. She said she hoped to hold the courts accountable and "rebuild faith and trust" in the municipal court system.

An ongoing Post-Dispatch investigation has found rampant conflicts of interest in area municipal courts, and court practices designed to flood municipal coffers with fines and fees while plunging poor people into debt and saddling them with stays in jail.

John Ammann, a St. Louis University law professor and legal clinic supervisor who has filed suit against several municipalities alleging court abuses, praised Galloway's move.

"It helps improve accountability of the municipal courts," he said. "It does not address the fundamental problem, which is that we have too many courts, but it is a step in the right direction of accountability.

"I think it's unfortunate that it's the state auditor that has to be the one to be the watchdog of the courts," Ammann said. "We think it's an appropriate role for the auditor, but we hope that other entities are as thorough in efforts to make the courts accountable."

At least one St. Louis-area mayor had no concern with Galloway's plan.

"We have nothing to hide," said James Paunovich, mayor of Calverton Park. "We're an open book."

Galloway's announcement came on a day when another branch of state government was due to report on its review of municipal court practices.

In May, the Missouri Supreme Court established a work group to study municipal court practices and recommend improvements.

In a preliminary report Tuesday, the group identified 12 issues it said might be appropriate for study, including the consolidation of some courts and conflicts of interest by judges and staff serving multiple municipal roles.

The report said the group planned to hold public hearings in Springfield, Kansas City and St. Louis and have a final report by Dec. 1.

Wellston is being audited because more than 500 residents asked for it.A petition for the audit, spearheaded by Councilwoman Linda Garner, was submitted April 21, 2014. The petition initially lacked enough valid signatures but was resubmitted in November, and the signatures were certified by the St. Louis County Board of Elections.

Exactly what concerns spawned the audit were not explained in public records. Garner, 53, a frequent critic of city operations, did not return messages left at her door and on her cellphone. Mayor Nathaniel Griffin also did not respond to a message.

Garner's petition was submitted one week before an FBI raid of Wellston City Hall on April 28, 2014. According to then-Wellston Police Chief G. Thomas Walker, agents took a lot of material from city offices that day.

Walker speculated that the search warrant might be related to council members' complaints about their lack of access to financial records. Walker said that one council member had even filed open public record requests to obtain documents.

The FBI has not explained the raid. FBI spokeswoman Rebecca Wu said the bureau did not confirm or deny the existence of criminal investigations.

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