County Council goes to court to place four more Charter amendments on the ballot

County+Executive+Steve+Stenger%2C+left%2C+talks+to+council+Chairman+Sam+Page%2C+D-Creve+Coeur%2C+at+the+Aug.+1+council+meeting.+Photo+by+Jessica+Belle+Kramer.

County Executive Steve Stenger, left, talks to council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, at the Aug. 1 council meeting. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

The County Council is going to court to get a series of proposed amendments to the county Charter on the ballot in November, including a proposal to ban the sale of county parkland unless voters approve.

The latest four proposals, approved by the council last month, add to the growing list of changes council members want to make to the county Charter, the Constitution-like compact that the county operates under.

The council placed three amendments on the Aug. 7 ballot. One of those amendments passed, one was thrown out by a judge and one failed by 12 votes out of 250,000 votes cast. The council is pursuing a recount in that case.

But in the meantime, the council has four new proposals on tap for voters in November if a judge agrees to add them to the ballot: A ban against selling parkland without a vote of the people, campaign-finance limits for county offices, a requirement to post financial information on the county website and a change to the county budgeting process that would grant the council more power than the county executive.

Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, and 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, filed a motion last week to place the amendments on the ballot pro se, or representing themselves.

It was just the latest court battle in a series of moves by the council to try to take away power from County Executive Steve Stenger. The county Charter grants the county executive wide power over budgeting and a host of other areas, but the council says it wants some of that power for itself to serve as more of a separation of powers.

Trakas said the council already has the power, and is just choosing to use it.

“This is not some zero-sum-game power struggle, this is simply at least six members of an elected body acting as a check and balance and oversight on county government, nothing more complex than that,” Trakas told reporters. “It’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s got nothing to do with elections, it has everything to do with transparency and good government. That’s a mantra. I’m going to keep saying it to you guys until you finally print it.”

Leading up to the Aug. 7 primary, Stenger maintained that the council was just engaging in “political shenanigans” meant to derail his election chances. He narrowly defeated Mark Mantovani in that contest, but still faces a Republican candidate in the general election in November.

“I think it’s nothing new, we’ve seen this in every government in the world — one branch competing with another branch,” Stenger said. “I think it’s just a natural consequence of, perhaps, human nature.”

The council went to court because Stenger waited until the last minute to veto the budget operations amendment. He had 15 days to decide whether to veto the bills and waited the full 15 days to return the vetoed amendment to the council rather than the 14 that had previously been customary. That meant the council didn’t get the vetoed bill in time for an override before the Aug. 28 ballot deadline.

It was the latest chapter in the battles between Stenger and the council, but Page said he wasn’t concerned.

“It’s an interesting interpretation of the Charter, but we’re not going to bicker because it’s very easy for us to go to court and get an order,” Page said. “It’s done routinely, and as long as we get it this week it shouldn’t be a problem. The statute to access the court order is broadly written and broadly interpreted.”

The council moved its typical 6:30 p.m. meeting to 10 a.m. last week in anticipation of overriding a Stenger veto before the deadline, but when Stenger hadn’t returned the veto yet, the council recessed the meeting until 6 p.m. that night.

“That’s an unfortunate process and it takes time, but that’s the relationship we have with this county executive is that every decision we make is going to be challenged in every way possible,” Page said, later adding, “We’ll put it on the ballot regardless.”

When asked during the two weeks if he was going to veto any of the Charter amendments, Stenger always said he hadn’t yet decided.

The council approved the amendments unanimously except for the budget operations one, which was opposed by 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.

Stenger calls that one a “budget-related power grab” that is “problematic in that it completely eliminates checks and balances in our local government, which is a problem. Currently we have a check and balance.”

The move would grant the council the right to individually approve interdepartmental budget transfers, which are now controlled by department heads.

The budget director has called that an “operational nightmare.”

But the council says it’s necessary for the council to exert its will over the budget.