By Gloria Lloyd
The first campaign-finance report documenting the finances behind the effort to recall 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, shows the effort is mostly bankrolled by a campaign strategy firm based in St. Louis city.
The Voices of District 6 political-action committee, or PAC, is gathering more than 14,000 signatures to hold another election on the question of whether to recall Trakas.
Recall organizers contend Trakas has blocked businesses from growing, wasted taxpayer money and obstructed progress at the County Council since he took office Jan. 1.
The campaign will reach the more than 14,000 required signatures to trigger a recall election on Trakas, campaign manager Garrett Webb promised the Call a month ago.
The campaign raised $15,935.77 in its first three months of existence from July 1 to Sept. 30, with just over $1,000 of that coming as cash donations, according to the report filed Oct. 16 with the Missouri Ethics Commission. The campaign received $14,885.77 in in-kind contributions, with $12,374.82 of that from Webb’s firm Leeward Strategies, based in Soulard.
Another publication’s statement that the campaign could cost up to $250,000 was attributed to Lemay tax accountant Cameron Hartman, treasurer of Voices of District 6, but he said that figure is “fuzzy math” that did not come from him.
“Ultimately we’re grassroots, and we’ve always been that way,” Hartman said. “Our early meetings, it’s just people from the neighborhood who are concerned about the direction of how things are going.”
Trakas is the only Republican in a Democratic-led alliance that currently controls the council 4-3 and has frequently opposed County Executive Steve Stenger. Recall campaigners say they are motivated by concerns of good governance and Trakas’ own actions. But the councilman’s key role in the alliance against Stenger leads some county observers, including frequent Stenger critic Tom Sullivan, to allege that the county executive is behind the recall effort.
“My takeaway was I thought it was interesting that a paid political consultant who doesn’t even live in the district is donating his time,” Trakas said. “I think that’s very interesting. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Soulard resident Webb fights back at that allegation, however. He is donating his time and money because a successful recall campaign has never been completed in Missouri and because he believes that Trakas is poorly representing the people of the 6th District. That impression has been reinforced by the many conversations he’s had with dissatisfied citizens and business owners in the last few months who feel unrepresented, he said.
“A recall has never been done, so as someone who is very intrigued by the elections process — and obviously I work in it — that excites me that we could have an opportunity to recall an elected official who’s done a lot of damage,” Webb said. “The guy has caused serious harm to the district and to business owners in the district, and I want to recall him — and I’m excited about it.”
Webb said he first learned about Trakas earlier this year when he was Googling kitchen remodeling companies, and McManus Construction came up. Googling the company, he came across articles from the Call on how Trakas was delaying rezoning for the company’s expansion.
When Webb first joined the campaign to recall Trakas, he told the other volunteers that they would have to fundraise enough to bankroll the campaign. But he quickly realized that would be an issue since many business owners in the 6th District were afraid to go public with their support “for fear of retaliation from Ernie,” Webb said.
Webb has never worked on a campaign with Stenger and can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen the county executive at social gatherings, he said. They have a mutual friend, attorney Jane Dueker, who is close to Stenger, but that’s it, he said.
“This idea floating around out there from Team Ernie that Steve is behind this is just asinine,” Webb said. “I think Steve has bigger fish to fry than worrying about a recall election that’s going very successfully right now. We don’t need Steve to come in, we don’t need somebody else to come in, we have an opportunity in place on our own. And yes, I have given $12,000 and some odd dollars, and it’s because I truly believe in this.”
Hartman said the only time he has ever seen the county executive is from behind the podium when he’s gone to the council to make a statement.
“I don’t know the guy, but people have these conspiracy theories that apparently put me and him in some type of weird connection to take over the world,” he said.
The top cash contributor to the campaign was McManus Construction owner Rob McManus, who had to delay the expansion of his business to a new location in Oakville from Affton for roughly six months this year when Trakas blocked the required rezoning at the County Council. The McManus rezoning has been one of the recall campaign’s top talking points and is a prime example of how Trakas has prevented businesses from growing, Hartman said.
McManus donated $500 and is also allowing the campaign to use his new Oakville location at the former Tee Time Family Fun Center as its headquarters.
The other top cash contributor is Hartman, who is the accountant for McManus and other businesses Hartman says Trakas has blocked from expanding or could in the future. He donated $300 to the recall effort.
Besides Webb’s donations, the campaign has also taken more than $2,000 in in-kind donations of notary services from former St. George Mayor Carmen Wilkerson, who served as Trakas’ legislative assistant until he fired her in May.
No one else donated more than $100 in cash.
To Trakas, that doesn’t seem to explain how the campaign is bankrolling its paid petitioners, with as many as eight to 12 at a time fanned out across the council district gathering signatures up to seven days a week.
“They’ve got dozens of people almost daily at various locations that ostensibly are all being paid,” Trakas said. “It certainly didn’t seem to indicate that there were sufficient funds as reported to cover that cost, particularly when their own treasurer was quoted … as expecting to spend $250,000. They either have a long way to go, or there’s more to be looked at.”
Webb said he is paying the petitioners, and that money is part of the $12,000 in in-kind donations he’s contributed.
He’s used some of the same petitioners on past successful petitioning efforts.