County executive race hits airwaves; erupts at weekly meetings of council

Members of County Council clash over diversity proposals

By Gloria Lloyd

The race for the county executive’s office is in full swing, with television commercials hitting the airwaves to remind voters of past scandals at the same time that the County Council is turning into a weekly battleground leading up to the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.

In the space of one week leading up to the council’s June 3 meeting, council members had three public disputes — on an audit, the Children’s Service Fund and minority requirements in county contracts.

Only one council member is backing County Executive Charlie Dooley’s re-election, with the other members siding with 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, one of Dooley’s opponents in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary, to oppose Dooley’s initiatives.

In a discussion last week on a series of rejected diversity bills that turned into a tense 20-minute battle involving Dooley and every council member, Dooley accused council members of voting against diversity and lying about their reasons for amending the bills, which set guidelines on minority and female representation in county contracts.

Dooley’s lone ally left on the council, Chairwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, confronted her fellow members, contending they went behind her back to amend diversity bills she is sponsoring, adding a clause that effectively excludes minorities and women from consideration for county contracts.

Stenger told Erby that he discussed the amended bills with the St. Louis County NAACP, and the NAACP supports them.

“You have a lot of contact with the St. Louis County NAACP?” Erby said to Stenger, asking how many years he has been involved with the NAACP. “I’m sure they don’t support these bills that exclude minorities and women. You can’t speak for them, Steve.”

“They advised me that they did (support the bills),” Stenger replied.

“They didn’t advise you that,” Erby disagreed, noting that she is a longtime member of the organization and objecting that the NAACP apparently received copies of the bills amending her bills before she did.

“How dare you?” Erby asked 4th District County Councilman Michael O’Mara, D-Florissant, who planned to introduce amendments to Erby’s minority work-force requirements that would prevent any company without an apprenticeship program from participating. “You’re restricting the very people that you represent.”

To Dooley and Erby, that is a union concession that sides against minority and women-owned enterprises, or MWBE.

Unions have largely abandoned Dooley to side with Stenger in the upcoming election. Stenger ally O’Mara is a journeyman pipefitter and a longtime international representative for the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinklerfitters.

“You train apprentices, and when it comes time for them to come into the journeyman’s program, the unions laid them off — African-Americans, women. And other minorities. You lay them off. They never get to that point,” Erby said. “This bill is to make sure that we level the playing field, which is not happening now, Mike, and you know it’s not.”

“It excludes independents, minorities and small businesses,” Dooley said.

“It doesn’t exclude minorities,” O’Mara said. “Does it say it in there?”

“That’s just simply not true, County Executive,” Stenger said. “I’m sorry.”

“You are sorry, I agree with you,” Dooley replied.

When O’Mara told Erby that his primary goal with the substitute bill is to bring county regulations in line with those in the city of St. Louis, rather than promote union interests over those of minorities, Erby replied, “Tell it to someone who believes you, Mike.”

Typically, the council member who introduces a bill is the only member who would amend it. In another unusual move, the council rejected Erby’s diversity bill at the perfection stage — usually, council members with reservations about a bill will allow it to get to the final approval stage before voting against it.

Through an executive order, in January Dooley hired a county diversity manager, Rob Horton, to oversee diversity representation. Erby introduced a bill that would have codified the county’s Office of Diversity into law, but the council rejected the initiative 4-2, with Erby and Stenger voting for it.

Earlier that day, Erby also went head to head with Stenger over a surplus of more than $70 million in the county Children’s Service Fund.