County Executive Steve Stenger at the Aug. 1 County Council meeting. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.
By Gloria Lloyd
The County Council got its day in court last week against County Executive Stenger, the second time in several weeks that the sides went before a judge to argue over whether Stenger has financial power over the council.
The arguments center around whether it was legal under the county Charter for Stenger to issue a Jan. 3 executive order cutting the council’s budget. Stenger cut the council budget by the same average amount that the council cut Stenger’s budget for most other county departments in the 2018 budget.
The judge will make his decision sometime in the future after he receives briefings from both sides this week.
It’s been more than a year since four members of the council filed the lawsuit against Stenger.
First the lawsuit centered around the county auditor and what the council members saw as Stenger’s interference into that office, but the argument grew to more of a separation-of-powers argument after Stenger cut money from the council’s budget by
executive order Jan. 3, which the council said nearly caused a shutdown last week.
The primary debate that played out in court over two days this month was whether the council counts as a county department or a legislative branch. Stenger has power over departments in the county Charter, and so if the council is a department, his attorneys argue that he can move around money for the council budget. But if the council is considered a legislative branch and not a department, Stenger might not have the power to take its money away.
The arguments center around the definition of the word “department,” which is not defined in the Charter.
The Sept. 14 bench trial lasted all day in county Circuit Judge John Warner’s court, with council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, and county Budget Director Paul Kreidler called as witnesses for the council and Kreidler as a witness for Stenger’s side.
In the gallery watching was 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, who along with Page is one of the four council members suing Stenger.
“The administration’s argument is essentially that history and tradition prove that the council is a department of county government, and so obviously the council’s position is that we are a separate branch of government, not a department of the administration,” Trakas said.
The councilman said he feels positive after seeing the court proceedings that Warner will rule for the council.
“The last thing the judge said to the parties when he advised them of the briefing schedule was the one thing they had to make sure they briefed was whether or not history and tradition can change the nature of a branch of government,” which places the impetus on Stenger to prove that the council is not a branch, Trakas said.
The Charter outlines a budget process in which the council can’t approve more than the county executive recommends, and the council has always been treated as a department when it comes to budget time, Stenger’s attorney Christopher Bauman noted in the first hearing Sept. 5. In practice, the council can vote to spend money, but if the county executive determines that the county is not taking in enough revenue, the executive can hold money back.
“It’s the fundamental, organic law of the county, and is construed in a way that minimizes conflicts,” Bauman said of the budget process.
To change the way that process happens would lead to “absurd results” of the council spending money the county doesn’t have, he argued. It would give the council the executive’s spending authority.
But as it stands, “There’s an interplay and interaction between the county executive and the County Council that’s elegant,” he said. “But after the council passes the budget, its participation in the budgetary process ends. It’s the executive that has the duty and authority after that to carry out the budget.”
And furthermore, when Stenger asked, “The council refused to say why they need money more than other departments,” he said.
But the council members’ attorney, Elkin Kistner of Bick & Kistner, said the executive order “plainly violates the most direct and plain language reading of the Charter. There’s nothing ambiguous about this whatsoever…. The Charter has spoken loudly and clearly that the executive branch has no authority to transfer funds if the council is not a department. And the County Council is not a department.”
The Charter never refers to the council as a department, and for practical purposes, the council is only considered a department for budgetary reasons, Kistner noted — or as Kreidler testified, “an accounting device.”