County Executive Steve Stenger, left, talks to council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, at the Aug. 1 council meeting. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.
By Gloria Lloyd
County Executive Steve Stenger and the St. Louis County Council actually got along this week, in what seemed to be a turnaround from the turmoil seen week after week in council meetings this year.
For months in the leadup to Stenger’s re-election bid in the Democratic primary Tuesday, Aug. 7, post-council headlines have most often focused on Stenger and various council members accusing each other of some version of “election-year ankle-biting” or “political shenanigans.” The council is currently aligned in a 6-1 majority against Stenger.
The council meeting Wednesday was both sides’ final opportunity to get digs in at the other in person before voters go to the polls Tuesday. But no one took it. The relative calm came just eight days after a very public showdown July 24 between Stenger and 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, and council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, who condemned Stenger’s leadership.
Instead, all three talked to each other with no raised voices or name-calling about how to resolve the funding of raises for Justice Center guards and nurses — an issue that’s been hanging over council meetings for months.
The County Council voted in May to grant the Justice Center employees roughly $600,000 in raises out of the fund from Proposition P, the countywide sales tax that went into effect last year for “police and public safety.”
Stenger and the council agree that the bulk of those raises, for jail guards, should come from Prop P. But part of the money would go toward nurses at the jail, who are technically employed by the county Department of Public Health even though they only work with inmates. Stenger wants the nurses’ raises to come from the health fund, but most of the council wants the money to come from Prop P. The St. Louis County Police Association called the council’s idea for the raises the first Prop P “misappropriation.”
Stenger has refused to enact the council’s bill, but he signaled Wednesday that he is willing to compromise.
“I respect your position, I just disagree with it,” he said to Trakas, who has accused Stenger of interfering behind the scenes to oust Trakas from office through a recall effort and a court case — a charge Stenger has denied.
With 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, absent, Stenger said he sat down with Erby months ago to discuss the issue and was willing to again.
“Certainly reasonable minds can differ on this, and I appreciate your position,” Stenger said. “I respectfully disagree with it… but once again, I think your position is certainly one that’s reasonable. I think your analysis is reasonable. It’s just something I can’t agree with based on the promises that were made.”
Most of the employees could see raises immediately if the council passes an alternative bill from Stenger that only gives raises to the Justice Center guards, he said.
“Even though reasonable minds may differ on the health fund, we certainly could agree on (raises for the Justice Center employees) and move that bill forward immediately,” Stenger said. “It would take care of a very large group of the employees we’re trying to help and in the meantime, maybe we can hammer out some kind of compromise on the health workers.”
The council and Stenger ended by agreeing with 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, that all sides needed to sit down and hash things out before the council meets again in two weeks.
“If we’re that close, then we need to hammer this out and get this done,” Harder said. “We can’t hold these people hostage for something we thought was going through. Just because people won’t meet or won’t be in the same room as somebody else — that needs to go away, and we need to get this resolved as quickly as possible.”
But 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, wondered why the talks hadn’t started sooner.
“We could have had this dialogue back then,” he said. “Maybe after Tuesday we can sit down and put all that aside and do what we’ve got to do.”