County Council majority sues Stenger


County Executive Steve Stenger, second from left, listens to Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, address the council last year, left to right: 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

By Gloria Lloyd
Staff Reporter
Pictured: County Executive Steve Stenger, second from left, listens to Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, address the council Oct. 17, left to right: 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

In an unprecedented move, the majority of the County Council is suing County Executive Steve Stenger and two other county officials in what has become a war over the county auditor’s office.
Three council Democrats and one Republican, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, filed the lawsuit against Stenger, County Counselor Peter Krane and acting Personnel Director Sue Daniels Oct. 30.
“At least on one thing they’re consistent,” Stenger said of the alliance, which has opposed him on nearly every issue this year. “They’re consistently irrational.”
County officials do not believe that a council has ever sued the county executive in St. Louis County, although it has been done in other counties, including recently in Jefferson County.
Trakas and his alliance approved a resolution Oct. 3 on a 4-1 vote to sue the county if Stenger did not agree to hire more auditors on to the staff of county Auditor Mark Tucker, who was hired by the same group of council members in February but has not yet produced an audit.
Tucker has been at the center of an ongoing battle between Stenger and the four council members in the alliance — Trakas, Page, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack.
The suing council members question in their lawsuit whether Stenger has interfered with the county’s separation of powers protected by the Missouri Constitution, since they budgeted for two auditors that he has declined to add to the county payroll.
“It’s obviously necessary,” Trakas said of the lawsuit. “The taxpayers are entitled to a fully staffed auditor’s office, and that’s what this lawsuit’s about.”
Nothing specific prompted the filing of the lawsuit last week other than the ongoing dispute over auditors, Page said.
“We’ve gone back and forth about this for a long time, and I think it’s time to have a judge decide whether or not the executive branch can block the legislative branch from hiring someone,” the council chairman said. “We passed the resolution over a month ago, and we were waiting to see if something would change. And at some point you have to file a lawsuit.”
At the time of the vote on the resolution to file suit about the auditors, 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, abstained because they said they supported the idea of more auditors but not suing the county to get them.
The sole vote against the resolution was 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.
Page placed only the names of the council members who voted to sue Stenger on the resolution.
Under the county Charter, the council only controls a single county department without oversight from the county executive, the auditor’s office, which makes the issue fundamental to democracy itself in the county, Trakas said.
“If we cannot staff the one entity we have the ability to have oversight over, then it effectively cuts the legs out from the council as a true legislative body and a true check and balance on the executive branch,” Trakas said.
But Stenger disputes that the lawsuit revolves around separation of powers.
“What the lawsuit is about is Mark Tucker,” Stenger said.
Tucker is not qualified for the job and can’t produce audits, Stenger alleged when he called for the auditor to be fired earlier this year.
The lawsuit is a waste of taxpayers’ money, Stenger added.
“In effect, the plaintiffs’ lawsuit is asking the public to pay for another full-time employee that the county does not need merely to cover up for Tucker’s incompetence,” he said in a statement released the day the lawsuit was filed.
Instead of efficiently hiring auditors, the council hired Tucker, blames Stenger for Tucker not producing audits and wants to add two more auditors on top of Tucker’s $85,000 position, Stenger said.
But the county executive vows not to hire any auditors for the office as long as Tucker is head auditor, citing many of the reasons why he already called for Tucker to be fired.
“In addition to the currently fully staffed office, they want to add an additional audit staff member, and it’s simply to supplement the work that is not being done by the auditor — who has no accounting experience, has a nearly $100,000 federal tax lien for three years of unpaid taxes, 2008, 2009 and 2010, and has a shoddy attendance record,” Stenger said. “It’s just not the right thing to do, and it’s an expense that taxpayers are going to have to bear already.
“They’re paying $85,000 in salary to a man who doesn’t pay his own taxes, and the council wants them to pay another $60,000 to $70,000 in salary plus benefits for junior auditors to actually do the audit work.”
The council members say the new auditor has hit roadblocks trying to conduct his Charter-mandated audits because his single deputy staff member quit when he was hired, leaving him alone in an office that they say would be understaffed even if it had the two more auditors called for in this year’s budget.
The lawsuit notes that other counties staff their auditor’s offices with far more employees than St. Louis County.
They blame Tucker’s lack of audits on a “hiring slushie” enforced by Stenger’s county Chief of Operations Glenn Powers.
Under the hiring slushie, which is not as strict as a hiring freeze, Powers said he only fills positions that are necessary, like Justice Center guards. He and Stenger don’t see extra auditors as necessary when the county has functioned with two auditors for a decade.
Another issue in the lawsuit revolves around the council suing Krane, who under the Charter is the only lawyer for the county, including Stenger and the council, but is appointed by Stenger.
The day after the council passed the resolution to potentially sue Stenger, Krane sent a letter to the council members’ preferred outside attorney, Clayton-based Bick & Kistner, refusing to authorize releasing the funds for the council to sue the county or Stenger.
There have been legislative and executive conflicts in the past in the county, but officials were always able to work them out, Page said. But with Krane not allowing them the money to sue Stenger, they felt they hit a brick wall that can only be resolved by a judge.
“This is a dramatic difference of opinion on whether or not we should have audits, whether or not we should have enough auditors, whether or not we should meet community standards and best practices for audits,” Page said. “And we’re just not meeting that.”