Candidates in County Council Democratic primary say what they’ll do for South County

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From left to right: Rep. Bob Burns, Alex Lange and Venki Palamand.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

Three candidates will face off in the Democratic primary Tuesday, Aug. 4, to run in November for the 6th District seat representing South County on the St. Louis County Council. The winner of the primary will face current 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican, in November.

In the August race, the candidates running are Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton; Alex Lange, a newcomer to political office; and former Mehlville Board of Education President Venki Palamand.

Burns, 72, 9057 Southview Lane, Affton, is the current state representative for the 93rd District, which includes portions of Affton, Lemay, Belle Villa and south St. Louis city. He served in his final legislative session this year and is now term-limited.

Burns is a former St. George alderman and former Affton Board of Education member. He and his wife, Dianne, have two grown children, David and Mike.

When asked why he was seeking office, Burns said, “We face many challenges, and I believe that my experience can help the people of south St. Louis County, the place I have lived my entire life and the friends and neighbors I love dearly. We need proactive leadership and someone who believes in selfless service.”

Lange, 33, 2311 Rosegarden Drive, Lemay, is a union representative with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655.

He and his wife, Sara, have two young children, Brooklyn and Emmett, with another child due in November this year.

When asked why he is running for office, Lange said, “I am a concerned husband and father who wants to fight for change and accountability to the county in which I’ve lived my whole life.”

Palamand, 53, 5385 Royal Hill Drive, Oakville, is an engineer and owner of Martak Machine.

He served on the Mehlville Board of Education from 2007 to 2013 and again from 2014 to 2017. He was board president from 2011 to 2013 and again from 2015 to 2016.

When asked why he was running for councilman, Palamand said, “I am concerned about the future of St. Louis County. We lagged the nation in economic and wage growth and coming out of the Great Recession of 2008, and we now face unprecedented challenges. After we get beyond this health crisis, our long-term focus should be on jobs, education and the economy. I believe that as an engineer and small-business owner, my background will allow me to make a meaningful contribution to St. Louis County and rebuild our region’s economy.”

The candidates gave the following responses to the Call’s questionnaire:

What issue do you consider the single most important in this race and why?

Burns said, “Protecting our property values and our families by keeping South County as crime free as possible by working to support a strong, responsive and professional St. Louis County Police Department.”

Lange said, “Cleaning up county government is a very important issue for the residents of St. Louis County in the 6th District, accountability and holding elected officials responsible to the people they serve.”

Palamand said, “Rebuilding the local economy and increasing wages. We have yet to feel the full economic impact of COVID-19; economic recovery should focus on increasing wages and strengthening education as a means to bolster our most affected residents. It is both a short-term and long term strategy to make St. Louis County a better place to live and work.”

Other issues you perceive in your race and your position on each:

Burns said, “Listening to the people and acting on their concerns, helping our small businesses to recover and encouraging economic development, maintaining our streets and infrastructure by seeing that South St. Louis County receives its fair share of county funds, ending pay-to-play politics and corruption in county government.”

Lange said, “The city/county merger is an issue that residents are very passionate about, and I am completely against a city/county merger. Rebuilding the 6th District and adding a diverse group of people in the community to help grow businesses and ensure higher wages and dignity to people’s lives. Funding of public education to ensure our families have strong schools that don’t only enrich our children’s lives but also add greater property values to our homes. Another important issue is to properly fund our public safety system to ensure our communities safety. We also must make sure the CARES funding is used correctly and isn’t turned into a slush fund.”

Palamand said, “Decreasing crime by investing in struggling communities and improving access to and quality of education, especially preschool. This, in turn, will also help communities improve economically because businesses small and large are drawn to areas with a skilled workforce and low crime.”

Do you believe the St. Louis County Planning Commission is responsive to county residents? How long should appointees serve on the Planning Commission? Is there anything about the zoning process that should change?

Burns said, “Any commission is only as good as the people appointed to it. I will see that appointees are qualified and without conflicts of interest.”

Lange said, “I believe that the Planning Commission should ensure their process is streamlined so residents of St. Louis County can continue to grow and improve our county.”

Palamand said, “The County Planning Commission has not always been responsive to the needs of South County residents, granting far too many variances to the county planning ordinances and development plans, for example. Yes, I believe there should be term limits for board members. We need improved notification — newspaper notices should be printed in newspapers that are generally distributed in the area affected by the zoning proposal, not just the paper circulated to the Clayton attorneys.”

What is your position on incorporation?

Burns said, “I believe in respecting the will of the people. The 6th County Council District I believe has the largest number of unincorporated residents in St. Louis County. Those communities that disincorporate often do so because they cannot financially continue to serve their residents. Whether to incorporate or not should remain in the hands of the citizens.”

Lange said, “I believe that any type of incorporation should benefit St. Louis County. I believe the voters of St. Louis County should have a say on incorporation. I am against a city/county Merger. I am open to a discussion on how to improve our county and government.”

Palamand said, “I am opposed to adding more levels of government. I believe South County services are the most efficient in the region because the vast majority is unincorporated, which reduces the tax burden on residents, prevents duplicative services and eliminates extra barriers for businesses and police.”

Should the council hold evening meetings? Do you agree with the 2020 decision to hold some council meetings during the day?

Burns said, “The County Council is not some private club. The members serve at the pleasure of the citizens and should hold evening meetings when more people who work for a living can attend.”

Lange said, “We should hold meetings where there can be the most public input as possible. The virtual meetings due to COVID-19 have been a good thing. Once we are able to do in-person meetings again we should include a virtual option as well for residents.”

Palamand said, “An occasional meeting during the day is fine, but in general, evening meetings would likely give members of the public the best chance to attend.”

Do you plan to accept campaign contributions from developers with projects before the council? Should council members vote on rezoning and development projects submitted by campaign contributors?

Burns said, “I believe in respecting the voters who by a 74-percent majority imposed campaign donation limits. My opponent’s (Lange’s) campaign is supported by a PAC (political-action committee) fund that has accepted donations 800 percent more than the limit for an individual campaign. It is located in Jefferson County and run by a close co-worker in the same office as my opponent. This makes a mockery of the county limits and Clean Missouri. I have never, and will never, allow any vote of mine to be influenced by a donor.”

Lange said, “I believe that campaign contribution laws/rules surrounding RFPs (requests for proposals) help to eliminate some of these concerns about contribution conflicts. I think as long as the laws are followed, and everything is transparent, then council members should be able to vote on rezoning and development projects.”

Palamand said, “Absolutely not … No, not if it’s within 90 days of a donation.”

Are you satisfied with the current state of the county’s assessment process?

Burns said, “I believe property assessments should be frozen for those over 65 who have retired to help those on a fixed retirement income remain in their homes longer.”

Lange said, “I am happy with the county assessment process at this time.”

Palamand said, “Yes, I believe the assessor is operating the office in accordance with state law.”

Are you satisfied with the direction the county is heading under the current County Council?

Burns said, “No. They have squandered our tax dollars on attorney fees and settlement of sexual harassment charges against a member of the council. They have not held the county executive accountable for conflicts of interest nor have been responsive enough to constituent concerns and holding absentee landlords accountable.”

Lange said, “I think the current County Council is moving in a good direction, but things could be better. Under the COVID-19 crisis and seeing how money from the CARES Act was spent gave me concern. I believe in transparency, and we can’t sacrifice the elected official responsibility to protect taxpayer money. There has been a lot of political football going back and forth on the council and people are sick of it, they want the council to be a group that works for the people, not for the special interests.”

Palamand said, “No. The council has become very partisan and sidetracked on frivolous issues. I am also disappointed that the council ceded their authority to the executive for the spending of $174 million in federal money for COVID-19 relief.”

Are you satisfied with the spending of Prop P funds so far?

Burns said, “No. Promises were made to the voters to have two officers per car, training and new district stations which have not happened. Instead the money is being squandered and diverted. I have called for a state audit and as county councilman will introduce a resolution requesting one of the Prop P fund use.”

Lange said, “I think the Prop P money has had some questions concerning its spending recently. Overall, I believe it has been spent in a good way. The way Prop P was worded when passed wasn’t the best policy. But I will work to ensure full transparency. I believe it is important to spend the money in the way that voters intended it to be spent when they passed it overwhelmingly.”

Palamand said, “Mostly, yes, but it appears that county leaders are spending more money than is being generated from the tax. Unfortunately, that will negatively impact taxpayers as well as our men and women in blue.”

What measures, if any, will you propose to encourage economic development in South County?

Burns said, “The county should offer micro-loans to those needing startup financing of their own business. We should create a small business incubator center in South County and create an innovation district with incentives for startups like the Cortex District in St. Louis. Also, listen to the concerns of businesses and help local small businesses to expand.”

Lange said, “Economic development is essential to the 6th District being a striving assist to St. Louis County. One way I would look to build South County’s economic footprint is to look at the tax dollars our community pays and ensure that we are getting the maximum return. I will make sure that our tax dollars are being reinvested in our community to add good paying jobs with benefits. Our tax dollars should be used to benefit business development that creates these jobs that allow residents to have a job that can provide for their family. Also I would create a task force of local leaders and diverse groups that will allow for all parties to have a seat at the table to move the 6th District forward.”

Palamand said, “I would be more open to development than our current councilman, provided it is appropriate for the area and has some community benefit. I would advocate for streamlining the development process and removal of any barriers that are not present in municipalities. St. Louis County needs to better compete for projects, not only with local municipalities, but also with other counties in the region.”

Are cuts needed to balance the county’s budget? Should taxes be raised?

Burns said, “With the current economic downturn due to COVID-19 the county budget is constrained, but so are the finances of the public, so I would be against raising taxes. If cuts are needed in the meantime, I would work to make sure essential services such as health and public safety are maintained.”

Lange said, “We have to look at what we are spending the taxpayers’ money on, and make adjustments when necessary. As we remember a few years ago people in the Mehlville School District voted on a tax increase to protect their school system and property values in the area, and I believe that has paid off but the work is never done, I believe having someone like me to bring a fresh new perspective will ensure that our hard-earned money is used wisely.”

Palamand said, “With the pandemic, it is likely that next year (2021) will see revenue declines. Unless the federal government once again steps in to provide additional revenue, as they did this year, budget cuts will likely need to be made.”

Should the County Council have its own attorney besides the county counselor?

Burns said, “As long as the county counselor is clear that they are to serve the needs of the County Council and county executive equally, then there is no need for the added expense of a second attorney.”

Lange said, “I think they should, as we saw with Councilman Trakas’ sexual harassment case there was a conflict of interest that needs to be eliminated when things involving the council happen.”

Palamand said, “Yes. Right now, too much power and influence are vested in the executive branch of county government.”

How will you make zoning decisions? Will you rely on resident feedback, or other factors?

Burns said, “Definitely I will rely heavily on resident feedback and when that is split, doing what is best for the community. Development should not be allowed that will cause hardship to neighbors or decrease their property value.”

Lange said, “I think listening to professionals is a must when talking about rezoning and understanding that each professional could have a specific interest is paramount to making a huge decision, also we have to listen to residents, it’s their neighborhood that’s affected, if you don’t listen to them you really aren’t working for them at all.”

Palamand said, “I will rely on the zoning commission while also listening to residents who live in the area in order to reach a consensus or compromise when it is needed.”

What is your opinion of the leadership of County Executive Sam Page?

Burns said, “It is always best when running your own campaign to not get into someone else’s lane. That being said, the voters have good alternatives in the August Democratic primary if they so choose.”

Lange said, “I think County Executive Page has done a good job while he has been the county executive, especially after having to take over in a very unstable time. Also, I believe his handling of the continued COVID-19 crisis has been very good, however I have some issues with transparency or lack thereof with some of the decisions that were made. It would be my goal to bring an added level of transparency and oversight to county government.”

Palamand said, “I believe Mr. Page has handled some issues well, and others poorly. Voters will have three solid choices in the August Democratic primary.”

Do you agree with the way St. Louis County handled the coronavirus response? Should the council have more oversight on funds?

Burns said, “It was terrible the way the county tried to charge fire districts for PPE (personal protective equipment). The County Council should definitely have more oversight of the coronavirus response spending.”

Lange said, “So, this is a deep question that has many answers.  Yes, I agree with the way St. Louis County is handling the continued coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic is not over, and we have to be smart and ask that people continue to wear masks to protect yourself, your family and the hardworking men and women in our grocery stores and other retail and restaurant locations. But I also feel that more oversight is always a good thing and I was publicly critical of their lack of it with the CARES funds on the Ray Hartmann show (‘St. Louis in the Know with Ray Hartmann’ on KTRS).”

Palamand said, “The county’s initial response to slowing and containing the virus was correct. However, giving what essentially amounts to a $174 million blank check to the executive branch of government was a poor decision. It’s not about the person who happens to occupy that office, it’s about our system of checks and balances. I believe the council should have retained their authority over the money.”

Previous 6th District council members have been involved in corruption schemes in St. Louis County government. What will you do to prove to 6th District residents that you are not violating the public trust as some of their other public officials have?

Burns said, “My previous public service in local government — 12 years on a school board and nearly eight years as a state representative — demonstrate my sincere desire for selfless public service rather than self-serving. I wasn’t put in the race by anyone, nor do I owe my employment to anyone who got me to run, nor will I owe those who are putting tens of thousands of dollars into a PAC fund trying to elect my opponent. I have been, and will continue to be, my own man.”

Lange said, “This is very unfortunate that the people in the 6th District and all throughout St. Louis County have this cloud over their heads and have a distrust for politicians, and frankly I do too. That’s why I am running for councilman — because I am not a politician, I have never served public office and haven’t developed the bad habits like ‘pay to play’ or wanting this to be about me. This is about the taxpayers, and transparency is the best recipe to gain respect and trust. It’s your actions not words.”

Palamand said, “Voters can look towards my track record of success at Mehlville, and how I was willing to make decisions that upset insiders. I evaluate all situations on a case-by-case basis, not along partisan lines or in my own self-interest. I have been and will continue to be an independent voice for the residents of the 6th District.”

Would you support a city-county merger with the city of St. Louis? Why or why not?

Burns said, “I am very opposed to a city-county merger. We can work together cooperatively, but the public would not be served by creating larger bureaucracies more removed from their control. There are big money interests that keep pushing this, but I will stand up to defend the best interests of the residents of South County.”

Lange said, “No, I would not support a city-county merger of any kind. Until I see anything that benefits the county I will not be interested or supportive of a merger. A merger will have many unanswered parts to it including uncertainty for schools, police departments and fire departments. The voters of St. Louis County deserve to vote on any type of plan.”

Palamand said, “Unless I see a detailed plan that demonstrates how such a merger would benefit both the county and city, I would be opposed.”

Would you support the city of St. Louis entering the county as a municipality? What effect would that have on the 6th District?

Burns said, “No. Eliminating the county offices which exist in the city could place an undue burden on St. Louis County and dilute the voting power of county residents in the selection of a county executive, County Council members and assessor.”

Lange said, “I would be willing to entertain this idea. This would have a major effect on the 6th being we are connected to the city directly. I think the county does a lot of good that the city could benefit from. But any plan should be voted on by the people of St. Louis County.”

Palamand said, “I would need to see more details on how such a merger or re-entry would impact St. Louis County. Ultimately, it will require a vote of the people of both the city and county to merge, and at this time, I believe public sentiment is against such a merger.”

What aspects of county government would you improve?

Burns said, “First and foremost would be better two-way communications, including citizen surveys to get feedback. Second would be constituent response when someone calls with a complaint. Being retired from business, I would be a full-time county councilman available every day. We also need a much better county website. The current one is hard to navigate for people to get the information they need.”

Lange said, “We need to listen and hear our constituents. This is their government and we represent them. I also want to make county government more accessible to all residents, we need to explore more ways to communicate and accessible to them. We have to bolster our public education system, continue to provide public safety for our residents and we have to grow the economic clout of the county.”

Palamand said, “I would like to see the county place a greater emphasis on recruiting small and mid-sized manufacturing companies, while also improving job training programs for those high-tech manufacturing jobs.”

Should North County receive more funds/attention from county government than South County?

Burns said, “All parts of St. Louis County should be treated equally. The 6th District of South St. Louis County has not received its fair share of taxes.”

Lange said, “I am a strong believer in making sure that the 6th District is receiving the taxpayer money that people that have decided to live here and put their roots down in the district should receive the taxpayer money and support that they put in. We grow and fail as a county. It is important to have a strong county.”

Palamand said, “St. Louis County government needs to pay attention to all parts of the county, as equitably as possible. Resources and investment should be put where they are most needed, and I think that includes areas in both North County and South County.”

What is your opinion of the leadership of Councilman Ernie Trakas?

Burns said, “I am running to give voters a clear choice and a more responsive voice.”

Lange said, “My Councilman Ernie Trakas has decided to play political tug of war over every issue with the council and refuses to work with the other side. Also our value system in South County doesn’t fall in line with the issues that Councilman Trakas has been a part of. The recall effort over whether or not comments were made concerning the thing that makes us special is our diversity, and a $60,000 settlement payment raises a lot of red flags of what a councilman/woman should be. We deserve better. I want to bring a new fresh perspective to the council.”

Palamand said, “He has been very controversial and is always making the news for the wrong reasons.”

Would you associate with someone who is accused of making racist jokes?

Burns said, “As a state representative my votes have always been for a more just and equitable society. Those who know me vouch for my sincerity in treating everyone with respect. It is unfair to call anyone a racist because of who they spoke with when they themselves have demonstrated in their own life what’s important. I condemn the use of racist language or joke.”

Lange said, “NO, this is terrible and unacceptable. It is disappointing that my opponent (Burns) went on a racist’s radio show not only once but twice after it was pointed out publicly that the radio host had used racist slurs over and over again.”

Palamand said, “No.”

Should the St. Louis County police keep its current levels of funding or be defunded?

Burns said, “I vehemently oppose defunding the police as a matter of critical public safety. County voters overwhelmingly voted for Prop P to expand police protection. County Council Chair Lisa Clancy wants to shift funding away from the police. She supports my opponent (Lange). I am endorsed by the St. Louis County Police Association because they know who my opponent would side with.”

Lange said, “ I think defunding is a huge mistake and not in favor at all of this thought. The residents voted on Prop P to add funds and I will always respect the will of the people. It is important to invest in the needs of the community, and we must find ways to ensure that police funds are being used properly and going to invest in our community.”

Palamand said, “I believe the county should maintain a sufficient level of funding for police in order for them to continue to receive proper levels of training for not only use of weapons and technique but also de-escalation and other important trainings. Police should also have access to mental health resources and equipment such as body cams. However, I also believe police are asked to solve more problems than is within their capacity, and other services must be invested into in order to lighten this load (such as education and other social services).”

What will you do to oversee spending from Proposition P?

Burns said, “I believe there should be an audit to see how the funds were spent. Second, I will respect the nonpartisan (Board of) Police Commissioners who should be overseeing the county police and stop the political interference of those seeking to divert Prop P funding for their own pet projects.”

Lange said, “I think all residents need to be able to see how the council spends money for Prop P. This money is earmarked for a specific issues related to supporting our police. Every penny that is spent I would want to know how, when and why it’s being spent.”

Palamand said, “Collaborate with the other council members and the county executive to make sure promises made are promises kept.”

What is your opinion of the performance of county Auditor Mark Tucker?

Burns said, “There needs to be more transparency and openness. Also, an auditor isn’t as effective at pointing out how to save money as having a comptroller. I would look into how a position of comptroller might enhance spending and cut costs.”

Lange said, “The job of the auditor is to perform audits. I am disappointed in the lack of audits performed by his office. His office is an opportunity to improve efficiency and transparency in government.”

Palamand said, “By all accounts, he is unqualified for the position and has done little more than collect a paycheck from the county.”

What are your thoughts on the St. Louis County police?

Burns said, “They are a fine group of upstanding and dedicated individuals and internationally accredited. They have a difficult and dangerous job which is often thankless, but they put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe.”

Lange said, “I think the St. Louis County police have a very hard job and deserve to be compensated for that work they do to protect us. I think they do a good job, but like anything we have to train, monitor and listen to not just the police force but the communities’ concern to address issues sooner than later.”

Palamand said, “St. Louis County Police is the largest and most well-funded and professional department in the region. They take accreditation seriously, have the most comprehensive standards for officers, and have resources that most other departments in the region do not have.”

What is the biggest issue facing St. Louis County today? What will you do to fix it?

Burns said, “St. Louis County has been the economic engine of the state. We need to stop jobs from being lost to other regions to make sure there are good jobs here that pay a living wage with benefits. Long-term that makes all the difference. We also need to stop the deterioration of neighborhoods and blight caused by out-of-state absentee landlords.”

Lange said, “The biggest issue facing St. Louis County is lack of trust in our county government. The corruption of the past and how we do things moving forward will have a huge impact on future generations. What we do now to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic will set the future for my young children. We must ensure transparency and oversight with everything we do in government.”

Palamand said, “Like every other city in the U.S., St. Louis County is toiling over the economic impact of COVID-19, which has resulted in massive unemployment and damage to small businesses. I will fight for prioritizing a recovery process that benefits all residents and brings long-term benefits, not just questionable short-term fixes.”

What are your thoughts on how the current County Council is operating? Do you support the decisions of the current Democratic council majority?

Burns said, “The County Council is too closed. There is also too much partisan bickering. I believe the needs of the people should come before politics. We need to forget about national agendas, roll up our sleeves, and get to work solving real problems that impact the lives of our citizens every day.”

Lange said, “I think the current County Council majority is doing a good job but when you can work with the other side you will be more successful for all people that live in the county. This isn’t about representing all the people but all the people.”

Palamand said, “I believe the current County Council has become too partisan and has ceded too much authority to the executive branch.”

If elected, will you accept campaign contributions from developers with projects pending or recently approved in the 6th District?

Burns said, “When elected, I would not solicit funds from developers with current projects pending before the council.”

Lange said, “No, I don’t believe accepting contributions concerning pending or approved projects is good for transparency.”

Palamand said, “I would not accept donations from those who have pending projects that require council approval.”

What is your opinion on the performance to date of council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy?

Burns said, “I opposed her changing the council meetings to daytime to reduce public input. I vehemently disagree with her efforts to defund the police and shift money away from law enforcement to her own special projects. Her endorsement of my opponent demonstrates that she is trying to consolidate her power and have another like-minded individual on the County Council to vote her way.”

Lange said, “I think Chairwoman is doing a good job and brings passion to the board.”

Palamand said, “I am encouraged by her support for early childhood education, however I was disappointed by her support to give the executive complete discretion over the $174 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.”