It wasn’t until the bill landed on the desk of Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens that the first hint of problems appeared.
“This is, without question, the worst piece of public safety legislation that I have ever seen,” Mark Richerson, a retired captain with the Missouri water patrol division, wrote to Greitens in early June about the bill that would lift restrictions in a boating safety law.
“I am extremely disappointed in the House and Senate for letting it get this far, and saddened by the (Highway) Patrol’s disinterest in marine safety.”
For several years, Richerson and another commander in Missouri’s water patrol division told their superiors in the Highway Patrol that they believed the proposal would endanger the lives of boaters. They argued the change would allow anyone, including children, to ride on top of a motorboat without adequate guards or railings to keep them safe, a practice that’s currently illegal.
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In emails and documents obtained by The Star through an open records request, Richerson said back in early 2016 that if the bill passed then, it would permit “dangerous operating conditions” and more boaters could be injured or even killed on lakes, rivers and streams. And Capt. Matt Walz, the current director of the water patrol division, likened the bill this year to “making seat belts optional” in cars.
Yet, the Highway Patrol remained quiet as the proposal gained momentum in the Missouri House and Senate this past legislative session. No one sounded an alarm to legislators. No one from the patrol testified about the proposal.
The bill cruised through the legislative process and was sent to the governor earlier this year with little public debate and no vocal opposition. Had Greitens signed it, the new law would have gone into effect Monday, right before the Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest holidays at Lake of the Ozarks.
In vetoing the bill last month, Greitens echoed the water patrol’s concerns and criticized the fact that lawmakers never had the division’s input before approving the measure.
“To paint a picture,” Greitens wrote in a letter to lawmakers explaining his veto, “this bill would allow two children to ride on an open bow of a speedboat traveling in excess of 40 mph on any body of water, including the Lake of the Ozarks.”
The story of how that legislation almost became law has magnified concerns about the 2011 merger of the highway and water patrols. Legislators from the Lake of the Ozarks area, as well as veterans from the former water patrol have questioned whether the highway patrol has the respect it should for the water division.
“When our water patrol division says something, it has to be given credence or the whole system is suspect,” said Rep. Rocky Miller, a Lake Ozark Republican. “All this does is lend more credence to we may have to separate them out again.”
The post-merger relationship between the highway patrol and water division attracted statewide scrutiny in late May and early June 2014, after Brandon Ellingson, a 20-year-old from Iowa, drowned in handcuffs while in the custody of a veteran road trooper who wasn’t adequately trained to work the water. Though water division officers received extensive training to help on the road after the merger, the patrol cut corners when it came to training road troopers to work the water.
Last year, Missouri paid Ellingson’s family $9 million in one of the state’s largest wrongful death settlements in recent years.
In the months after Ellingson’s death, a special Missouri House committee studied whether the merger was working. In the end, the committee — headed by state Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican — worked with the patrol to increase training and standards for officers working on the water. Both Franklin and Miller say those changes have improved safety on Missouri waterways.
But they still worry about the relationship between the patrols and say they’re frustrated that it appears patrol commanders didn’t heed the warnings of the water division during the 2017 legislative session.
“Why didn’t they listen?” Franklin said. “I don’t know what the back story is to that. Who dropped the ball?”
Franklin and Miller said they were told by the House sponsor that the amendment wouldn’t impact the Lake of the Ozarks. Neither reached out to the water division.
“When there’s a problem, they come to us and say, ‘This is a problem,’ ” Franklin said. “Not hearing anything is like, ‘It’s OK.’ ”
Capt. John Hotz, a highway patrol spokesman, said the patrol only provides lawmakers with technical information about legislation when specifically requested to do so.
“Absent a specific directive from the governor, the patrol does not support or oppose pending legislation,” Hotz said in an email. When asked if that position changes when there’s a public safety concern, Hotz did not elaborate.
Richerson questions whether that protocol would hold true if the legislation was related to a public safety issue on the road.
“If it would have been a seat belt law would they have been sitting around waiting for someone to ask them to testify?” Richerson asked.
From December to mid June, Walz — who took over the water patrol division after Richerson — wrote three emails to highway patrol commanders warning about the proposed change in state law, according to the emails obtained by The Star.
“Once people understand what this bill actually does, there will be a tremendous amount of criticism on us as the premier boating safety advocacy agency for the state,” he wrote to a commander. “I do not know what is behind our lack of effort on this issue, but I consider it an ethical responsibility to stand up now.”
In another email, Walz wrote, “I’m sure you’re probably getting tired of hearing from me on this.”
This was the third year Rep. Robert Ross, a Texas County Republican, has sponsored the boating legislation.
Currently, the law prohibits passengers from riding on certain areas of the boat unless there are adequate guards or railing to prevent them from being tossed overboard. Adequate railing means rails of at least six inches in height.
Ross, who did not respond to a request for comment from The Star, told his House colleagues during discussion of the bill in March that his goal was to carve out an exemption in the law for small boats that travel at low speeds on slow-moving float streams and rivers.
“It’s a simple bill,” Ross said at the time. “It gets rid of the requirement that boats used on rivers and streams that are not manufactured with a rail be required to have that rail.”
But commanders with the water patrol division said the bill wouldn’t apply to just rivers and streams.
“I would reinforce that this will affect boaters on every waterway,” Richerson said in an email to the patrol’s legislative liaison in 2016, “and the recommentation is contrary to the public safety interest.”
Ross disagreed with that assessment.
“The way I’ve crafted the language it will only specifically apply to boats on rivers,” he told his House colleagues in March.
When the legislation first came up for a vote in the House, Franklin and Miller both voted no. Franklin said she had opposed similar proposals in the past because she feared they could negatively impact boaters on the Lake of the Ozarks.
When it came up for a second vote later, Franklin and Miller say they spoke with Ross.
“He told us, ‘You all are not in this,’ ” Franklin told The Star. “I said, ‘I’ve read it, it looks like it could possibly affect us, but if you are telling us it doesn’t, then OK.’ ”
She and Miller then voted yes.
“Just one word from them (the patrol) would have changed what I would have thought about it,” Franklin said.
Sen. Dave Schatz, a Frankliln County Republican, sponsored the bill in the Senate. He said no one ever approached him to express problems with the bill.
“If there were areas of concern, we could have addressed them or at least taken them into consideration,” Schatz said, later adding: “If anyone had objections, I wish they would have come to us and told us. It would have been better to let us know before it got to the governor’s office.”
After the proposal passed, Richerson — who retired last year — says he spoke to the new superintendent of the Highway Patrol, and met with the governor, who he now applauds for listening and “doing the right thing.”
“I was just afraid he was going to sign it before he knew what he was signing,” Richerson said.
The retired captain, as well as legislators from the lake area, want to know why the Highway Patrol didn’t listen and what needs to be done in the future.
“The legislature and the governor have got to figure out how to fix this for the long term,” Richerson said.
Miller said that once he understood Richerson’s concerns, he wrote a letter to the governor asking for a veto. He also asked that the next time a recreational boating bill starts moving through the legislative process that someone from the patrol contact him.
“I did not receive any negative input on this bill,” Miller wrote in the letter which The Star obtained from Greitens’ office.
Miller later told The Star: “We need to make sure on matters of safety that they (the patrol) testify.”
Franklin plans to find out what happened and why. She feels the patrol listened to the House committee when members studied the merger and then worked with commanders to improve training and standards. But she said she doesn’t understand why it appears they didn’t pay attention to the water patrol division during the legislative session.
“It’s very disappointing to me to hear that Capt. Walz had done his job and no one listened,” Franklin said. “Yes, we have run out of time for our review. Our committee is over. But this issue with the water patrol and how the highway patrol treats them is not.”