Council still has questions for Police Board nominees

County Council obligated to question appointees, Stenger says

By BURKE WASSON

The St. Louis County Council last week held County Executive Charlie Dooley’s recommended Police Board appointments not out of opposition but a desire for more questioning, according to 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county.

Because of recent reports that Dooley is attempting to facilitate Police Chief Jerry Lee’s removal through two new appointments to the five-member Police Board, some council members want more time for consideration and the council voted 4-3 to delay the appointments.

Besides Stenger, 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country; 5th District Council Vice Chair Barbara Fraser, D-University City; and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, voted to delay.

Voting against the delay were 1st District Council Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City; 2nd District Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; and 4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant.

“It really wasn’t a planned thing,” Stenger told the Call. “There were four council people who were pretty much of the same mind that with all those stories brewing about Chief Lee and the claimed difficulties that Charlie was having with Chief Lee, we just thought that it would be best (to delay the appointments). And it was truly just four people who are of a like mind. We thought it would be best to put some space out there. We need some time to consider all of the facts and circumstances.”

Dooley has recommended that Concord resident John Saracino, 52, and Chesterfield resident Calzona Hall, 73, serve on the Police Board.

The county executive requested those appointments shortly after Lee had publicly questioned the department’s level of pay. Lee has said that Dooley’s $1.3 million request to hire 14 officers as part of a Youth Violence Initiative would be better spent on police pay raises.

Regarding Saracino and Hall, Stenger said he believes they are “good people,” but that the council has an obligation to question all recommended appointees.

“The nominees are both good people,” he said. “We interviewed them thoroughly, asked them a lot of questions and the responses were all very acceptable. It was really just a matter of really needing to look at the whole matter and to give really solid and thorough consideration because it’s so important who’s on that Police Board. It really makes an impact in our community. And we just want to make sure that everything is considered and the County Council is doing its job.”

Despite Burkett’s concern that some members of the council were not acting “appropriate” by “grilling” Saracino and Hall at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Stenger emphasized that the council was simply showing checks and balances.

“There was by no means an intention on anybody’s part to obstruct,” he said. “There was no fingerpointing. I think that all the questions that were asked were really fair and they were salient. They were not pointed questions. They were just questions that really needed to be asked.

“As I said in the Committee of the Whole meeting, there was a question as to whether we should be asking certain questions and as to whether the questions were appropriate. And I responded that if we don’t ask these questions, the citizens can’t. So if we don’t ask them, nobody will be able to. And it’s not so much that anyone’s questioning the county executive. We’re not. We were questioning the appointees, which is exactly what our function as the legislative branch is to do. We’re a check. We’re a balance.”

Stenger added Lee “does an excellent job” and that he wants to see a fair process in the county’s management of its police force and Police Board.

“I’ve known Chief Lee for a number of years,” he said. “As a citizen, I’ve watched the job that he’s done as chief. And I think he does an excellent job. I think he stands up for his men. And I think he runs a great department. As an elected official, I’ve been able to probe deeper into the job he’s done and I think he does an excellent job. And I think the police that we have in south county are a great force. I think that’s in part because of what a great chief he is.

“I think it’s unfortunate that there are issues of the variety that have been reported. And I certainly want to make sure that whatever happens that our department has a more-than-fair shot at having a great leader.”