County Charter Commission kicks off with resignation and Better Together debate

The 2019 St. Louis County Charter Commission convenes for its first meeting Feb. 21. Photo by Erin Achenbach.

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

The St. Louis County Charter Commission held its first meeting last week, but a member resigned days later after it emerged that he wrote the executive summary on Better Together’s report advocating a city-county merger.

Two days after what seemed like an uneventful first meeting, Ron Watermon resigned at what he said was the request of County Executive Steve Stenger, who appointed him. Even as Better Together came up in the commission’s discussion of how to change county government, Watermon hadn’t mentioned he played a key role in the organization’s proposals for a city-county merger.

“I think one thing that’s been proven this weekend is that Better Together cannot be trusted,” said 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville. “They tried to infiltrate the commission… If that’s indicative of their leadership, I say bring it on.”

The county Charter is the Constitution-like document that governs how the county operates, and until last year, it saw few changes since the 1970s. But in 2018, the document became a battleground between the County Council and Stenger, with council members suing Stenger to force their interpretation of the Charter over his.

The Charter Commission is comprised of 14 members, half appointed by the council and half by Stenger. Council members appoint one registered voter from their district.

County voters decide if a commission should convene on years that end in 8 to decide if any changes should be made to the Charter. Last November, voters decided the panel should be held — a move Stenger supported, but council members did not.

The commission is charged with coming up with amendments to the current Charter, or creating a new one altogether. It is possible that the commission could decide that no changes are necessary.

Any amendments, or a new Charter, would have to be approved by 60 percent of the members, or nine out of 14. Any changes would ultimately have to be approved by voters.

The panel’s first meeting Feb. 21 at first appeared free of major disputes and more organizational in nature, with members introducing themselves and discussing priorities for the commission to work. But a reveal the next day that one of Stenger’s appointees wrote the 20-page executive summary for Better Together led to that appointee resigning Feb. 23.

Nonprofit organization Better Together is proposing a city-county merger of St. Louis County and St. Louis city, to be decided on by a statewide vote in the November 2020 election — which could be the same time any changes to the Charter appear on the ballot.

The decision of whether or not Better Together should have any involvement in discussions regarding the county Charter dominated much of the commission’s first meeting.

The chairman of the commission is former County Executive Gene McNary, a Republican who was appointed by Stenger to head the panel. He also served as county prosecuting attorney for seven years.

Other members appointed by Stenger include Watermon, former 6th District Councilman and Stenger’s Policy Advisor Jeff Wagener, Hazelwood Mayor Matthew Robinson, Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones, retired Deputy County Counselor Bob Grant and former 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, the county revenue director.

Members appointed by council members include former Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis of Ferguson, former 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, attorney William Spieler, April Powell and two council legislative assistants — Chris Grahn-Howard of the 7th District and Tony Weaver of the 4th District.

McNary, who has favored a borough plan for merger in the past and said he “didn’t agree” with Better Together’s plan, suggested that a Better Together representative testify to the commission since the organization had collected what he felt was useful data regarding the shortcomings of the St. Louis region.

But that idea got pushback from other commission members, including Concord resident Maxine Schumacher, who was appointed by Trakas. He has been outspoken against a city-county merger.

“I’m uncomfortable with including Better Together… I think it would give a false impression to county voters if we opened the door to one of those plans… and I’m not for including any and all plans,” said Schumacher.

However, even as the subject dominated conversation at that first meeting, Watermon sat silent. He is the former vice president of communications for the St. Louis Cardinals and current president and CEO of Brand Journalism Strategies, a communications consulting firm.

Watermon wrote the 20-page executive summary of his client Better Together’s plan to combine the county and the city of St. Louis into one.

Interestingly, Watermon had nothing but praise for the Charter at the meeting.

“I think it’s a brilliant document,” he said, adding that the county had run smoothly since it was adopted in 1979.

As for changes to the Charter, Watermon suggested looking into making county elections nonpartisan, a suggestion he reiterated in his resignation email to McNary, stating “we need fewer things that divide us as a community.”

Trakas also said that the situation with Watermon was reflective of issues he has with the Charter, such as the county executive having the power to appoint seven commission members, so the “ability for a commission to be completely objective is certainly in question.”

“Truth be told, how can any appointee of Mr. Stenger’s be objective when, if the merger goes through, he is effectively a monarch?” said Trakas. “I think everyone he put on there, he put on there for a reason.”

Wasinger took a middle ground approach toward including Better Together in discussions about the Charter. She said she agreed with Schumacher that they shouldn’t attend, but felt that everyone should read their data online.

“And actually I think we should read it,” Wasinger said. “It’s a totally different point of view, but it does have good data.”

Curtis suggested creating a more rigid definition for “shall,” particularly in the case of “the county executive shall attend County Council meetings.” Stenger argues that he is not obligated to attend.

“Hopefully we don’t have to expend county dollars to define a word that’s been used for over decades and more,” Curtis said.

He also said the commission should be as transparent to the public as possible, unlike perceptions of Better Together.

The commission has until Dec. 31 to conduct their work, but they can finish sooner. From there, county voters would have to approve any proposed amendments or a new charter in either a special or general election held on a day determined by the commission.