County sues four council members over chair, leadership vote

Seventh+District+Councilman+Mark+Harder+and+3rd+District+Councilman+Tim+Fitch+at+a+May+2019+meeting.

Photo by Erin Achenbach

Seventh District Councilman Mark Harder and 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch at a May 2019 meeting.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

This is a breaking news story. Check back to callnewspapers.com for more in-depth coverage. 

St. Louis County is suing itself again.

County lawyers, representing two council members, filed a lawsuit Saturday against four council members who voted Friday to elect a different chair and vice chair than the ones already elected Jan. 5.

The council chair for 2020, the 5th District’s Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, was elected chair Jan. 5 on a 4-3 vote that included outgoing council member Rochelle Gray, after a Charter change said that new council members wouldn’t be sworn in until the second Tuesday of January instead of Jan. 1, as had been traditional. Those same members elected 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, as vice chair. Trakas voted with the four to elect himself and Clancy.

But Gray’s successor, Shalonda Webb, joined with the three dissenting votes to call a special meeting Friday and elect Rita Days as chair and Mark Harder as vice chair. With Gray off the council, Fitch, Harder, Webb and Days form a bipartisan council majority.

They say that the council should have waited until the Jan. 12 meeting to allow Webb to have a say in council leadership.

Who actually serves as chair may be decided by a judge, and the judge assigned to the case, county Circuit Judge Thomas Albus, issued a preliminary order Tuesday requiring that Fitch, Days, Harder and Webb respond to the lawsuit by Friday.

Fitch tweeted about the lawsuit, “Sam Page’s attorney using your tax $ to sue county government. The County Counselor who filed the lawsuit also represents the county council. Sued her own client. County vs. County. #HowDoesThatWork”

County Clerk Diann Valenti told The Call Tuesday afternoon that the regularly scheduled County Council meeting set for Tuesday night would go on. But the dispute between council members over the vote led to virtually no regular business being conducted across two 30-minute meetings last week, including the special meeting Friday.

Over and over during the two meetings, Fitch disputed that Clancy was the duly elected chair and said she had no right to run the Jan. 12 meeting or the Jan. 15 meeting. Trakas called the second vote held for chair and vice chair at the Jan. 15 meeting “obscenely illegal,” and he, Clancy and the other member who agrees with them, 2nd District Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, all abstained from the 4-0 votes that might have elected Days and Harder.

Orwick said at the Jan. 12 meeting that any motion to hold another election for chair and vice chair would not be legal.

“There is no legal mechanism to redo our chair and vice chair votes,” Clancy said at the meeting Friday, later adding, “Madam Clerk, I would like the record to reflect that I object to this. This is illegal.”

Trakas interjected near the end of the Jan. 12 meeting, noting that the council had received a “lengthy, comprehensive legal memorandum” on the issue “that clearly establishes your motion as unrecognizable. There’s been no removal of the chair or vice chair, you’re just being an obstructionist and I’m sick of it.”

Over interjections from Fitch, Trakas continued, “Why don’t you quit being a bully or if you choose to bully someone, bully someone who can push back, sir. We’ve had enough of you, we’ve had enough of you, sir. You’re a fool.”

But Fitch tweeted that the law was on the side of Webb and the council members who are being sued: “Missouri Constitution, Article VI, Section 10, ‘the terms of city or county offices shall not exceed four years.’ It doesn’t say, four years and 11 days. #NoWiggleRoom.”

Newly elected Webb said that she has to side with her constituents, who want her to represent them on the council, not Gray.

“The people of the 4th District elected me to represent them, they want my voice to be their voice and they want me to fight for them. The amount of emails, phone calls and pop-up visits that I received from my constituents is clear: It is a sign that they want their voices heard, to remain neutral or abstain from this such important vote will be – it will be equivalent of me remaining silent on behalf and that is something that I just cannot do,” Webb said at the Jan. 12 meeting, her first in office. “From the moment that this issue began my position was clear — I should have the right to vote for council leadership. I made my position public. I also sent my position to each member. … It has nothing to do with who I might vote for but everything to do with the people of District 4 being silenced.”