Pictured above is Steve Stenger and the County Council.
By Gloria Lloyd
The County Council came out with their strongest words yet against County Executive Steve Stenger last week as they overrode five of his vetoes.
The council overrode Stenger’s vetoes of two bills and three proposed county Charter amendments the council had placed on the Aug. 7 ballot. All the votes were 6-1, with the sole dissent from 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights. He is currently Stenger’s sole ally on the council.
Stenger vetoed a budget amendment giving raises from Proposition P money to nurses and Justice Center jail guards and a bill for an outside attorney for the council in Sunshine Law cases, along with three proposed changes to the Charter: a bill that would allow the council to pay for its own lawyer instead of relying on the county counselor, one that imposes campaign contribution limits and requires any budget transfer to be approved by the council and one that would change the definition of employment so that council members could work as independent contractors for other governmental bodies.
The council voted a week earlier to hold the May 29 meeting, held the day after Memorial Day, at 10 a.m. rather than the customary 6:30 p.m. time slot for its weekly meetings. The council made the change so that it could override Stenger’s vetoes and still get the Charter amendments to the county Board of Election Commissioners to make it onto the August primary ballot alongside Stenger’s own re-election bid, in which he faces Democratic opponent Mark Mantovani.
Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, and 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, took aim at Stenger while overriding his vetoes. The county executive did not attend the meeting.
“None of these votes would be necessary if we had a strong county executive who could line us up with a vision for St. Louis County,” Page said.
Trakas noted Stenger’s recent absences from council meetings, which the Charter states the county executive “shall” attend.
“I hope the media reports it fully and accurately what’s going on here. Where is the county executive? We have an absentee county executive once again. Once again Mr. Stenger frankly is not on the job,” Trakas said. “He doesn’t have the courage to be here today to defend his actions in vetoing critical legislation, whether it pertains to raises for nurses who work in the Justice Center or critical Charter amendments that are desperately needed to make this county government run more efficiently.”
He later added, “What is really the problem here is a total, complete and utter absence of leadership. And until we have that kind of leadership in the county executive position, nothing’s going to change.”
But Stenger got his shots in too. In the veto letters he sent to Page the week before rejecting every one of the council’s Charter amendments, he said the provision to change the definition of “employment” would “upend the county Charter by allowing council members to work for outside governmental entities” and “cover for the alleged misdeeds of one of its own members.”
A St. Charles County judge will decide if Trakas violated the existing Charter prohibition against council members holding employment with other governmental entities by working as an attorney for three public school districts.
The amendment “constitutes a brazen attempt to excuse the alleged disqualifying actions of one of their own members. Worse still, this action sets the stage for future violations of the public trust. The county’s Charter, like that of good governmental entities across the nation, was carefully and conscientiously crafted in regard to this issue so that elected officials would not be positioned to serve two public masters, with all the ethical dilemmas such situations are bound to entail,” Stenger said.
Stenger also vetoed the council members’ proposed amendment that would allow them to hire their own attorney if they believe the county counselor isn’t representing them properly. The Charter mandates that the county counselor serves as the county’s only attorney, but the majority of the council maintains that since County Counselor Peter Krane is appointed by Stenger, he cannot offer the council impartial advice in case of a conflict with the the executive branch.
But the Charter change comes without “any limitation in scope or funding and without any benefit to county residents,” Stenger said.
“In addition, this effort would eviscerate the core concept of the American system of three branches of government with a separation of power delineating among those branches various core functions and providing checks and balances,” Stenger said. “Under the proposal, the council, the legislative branch, would gift itself with the executive function of entering into contracts in the name of St. Louis County.”
The ballot language also does not mention that the county has a full-time attorney who represents the council, Stenger noted.
In Stenger’s veto of the bill that would allow the council to hire an outside attorney for Sunshine Law cases, he wrote, “This bill is based on a groundless concern.”
He said that the team of attorneys in the county counselor’s office can work separately on legislative and executive matters, and any attorney assigned to respond to a Sunshine Law request for the council would be “dedicated to that task, and their work would involve no conflict of interest.”
While vetoing a Charter amendment that would limit county campaign contributions to $2,600 per person per election, matching state limits, Stenger said that the idea “fails to address wealthy, self-funding candidates who would simply seek to buy a public office.”
The same ballot measure would add multiple finance-related provisions to the Charter.
Stenger argued that with so many financial questions crammed into one amendment, the “ballot language potentially constitutes a fraud on voters because of the multiple propositions it contains. By law, when questions are referred to voters, they must be submitted separately so that each may stand or fall upon its own merits.”
The amendment is a “rush job at the expense of propriety and respect for the public’s right to fully participate in the issue,” Stenger wrote. “The county’s Charter is equivalent to its Constitution. Any attempt to alter this venerable document should be undertaken in a prudent and deliberate manner…”