Conflict between Stenger, council could end up in court

County hiring freeze in effect since days of Charlie Dooley

Sam Page

Sam Page

By Gloria Lloyd

With County Executive Steve Stenger and a majority of the County Council increasingly at odds, the council chairman speculated last week that the conflict could go to court.

Four members of the seven-member council believe they are at a crossroads in their continuing faceoff with Stenger, who refuses to hire new county auditors they want to employ to oversee county spending. The group includes 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, and most of the council’s Democrats.

Drastic measures might be necessary to resolve what council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, sees as a fundamental conflict of interest, he said.

“We are exploring all options, including judicial intervention with a lawsuit,” Page said. But under the county Charter, the council would have to obtain permission to sue Stenger from the county counselor.

The county counselor is appointed by the county executive, but represents the council and all other county departments along with the county executive.

County Counselor Peter Krane said at last week’s council meeting that he is not convinced that a “disagreement of ideas” rises to a conflict of interest.

“If we get a court action, if we file something in court, would that convince you?” Page said. “If you turn the electricity off to our building and you say it’s not dark enough?”

The argument is the latest in a string of hiccups in the relationship between Stenger and the council since Trakas and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, took office Jan. 1.

The bad blood boiled over April 28 at the council’s first Revenue and Personnel Committee meeting in nearly a decade, when county Chief of Operations Glenn Powers said he sees no reason the county should fill auditor jobs that have been vacant for years. At Stenger’s direction, Powers started enforcing a hard freeze on new hires due to budget concerns last year, he told the council in a meeting so tense that Krane compared it to an interrogation.

“We certainly can’t add positions, and we have to get more efficient than we have been,” Powers said.

Trakas and Gray replaced Stenger allies, Kevin O’Leary, D-Oakville, and Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, respectively.

The new council members have clashed with Stenger over a series of issues, starting with the Jamestown Mall redevelopment in Gray’s district, continuing with the Cliff Cave trail extension in Oakville, and most recently the new county auditor.

When Page took over as chairman in January, he immediately called for a closed session to fire then-Auditor David Makarewicz.

When the council hired Mark Tucker as auditor on a split vote, 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, asked for an investigation into Tucker’s qualifications since the Charter calls for an auditor with financial experience.

Together, Trakas, Page, Gray, and 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, have sided with each other on Tucker and tried to create a new office of county legislative research director to offer legal advice to rival the county counselor’s office.

It’s a fundamental battle into how county government operates, because Krane is too tied to Stenger to be able to offer them independent advice, they say.

If the goal is to save money, Stenger said the new positions will add more than $500,000 a year in personnel costs.

“The spending problem is in the legislative branch,” he said. “We had an auditor who was qualified to conduct audits. Now we have one who can’t audit himself, so he wants an additional two staff members to audit.”

The public got a glimpse of the ongoing battle at the end of the May 2 council meeting, when Trakas began questioning Krane in a manner more similar to a deposition than a conversation, as he also did at a council caucus in February.

In that session, Trakas asked Krane more than 40 minutes in 15 minutes. Last week, he asked Krane more than 30 questions.

When Trakas was done, Page took over, probing how Krane would decide that independent counsel was needed due to a conflict of interest with either the council or the auditor.

The two debated how Tucker might sue the county to get additional auditors hired, an expense Krane noted would have to come from the auditor’s budget.

“I’m not going to get in the way of the guy” if Tucker wants to sue the county, Krane said, noting he would allow the auditor to choose his own lawyer if it came to that.

“We’re seeing a lot of getting in the way of our decisions,” Page said. “It’s just a question of how far you would carry it out.”

Meeting with Powers, Erby made it clear she didn’t like having to go through him or Stenger to hire auditors.

“So we have to beg?” she said. “We do have a clear conflict with separation of powers. We’re the County Council, we’re elected by the people. You, or your boss, continue to go around us. That’s unacceptable to me.”

A hiring freeze of various levels has been in effect in the county since the days of former County Executive Charlie Dooley and the Great Recession, but Stenger ramped it up last year.

Powers moved up to chief of operations a year ago after decades as director of the county Department of Planning.

Any new hires come through him, and he’s unlikely to approve them unless they require overtime to fill, such as police officers and Justice Center guards, he told the council. So when Tucker advertised the new internal auditor position and requested the official go-ahead to hire someone, Powers said no.

“It hasn’t come off my desk,” he told the council. “The office appeared to be functioning just fine for a decade with two filled positions.”

The county cut 25 vacant positions from the budget last year and asked departments to carve 1 percent out of their salary budgets for wiggle room to make new hires, Powers noted. Although Powers described the situation as a hard hiring freeze, he also said it is “slushy,” with the ability to green light key positions on a case-by-case basis.

Citing the county’s financial constraints, Trakas, Page, Erby and Gray voted down a bridge in Harder’s district April 11 that is ranked as the worst in St. Louis County and one of the worst in the state.

That vote was less about saving money and more about political retribution against Harder for the auditor investigation, Stenger contended.

But political payback had nothing to do with it, Trakas said.

“What you have is for the first time in a long time, a County Council that is willing to take long hard looks at serious issues,” Trakas said. “And I’m not sure the county executive is happy about it.”