Dooley’s leadership challenged by county executive opponents

Opponents don’t have a clue about governing, Dooley says

By Gloria Lloyd

Candidates from across the political spectrum challenged the leadership of longtime County Executive Charlie Dooley at a forum last week, in what will apparently be the only time any of the candidates answer questions together before the Aug. 5 primary election.

At the two-hour League of Women Voters forum, held July 16 at St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley Student Center, the four candidates who were not Dooley agreed that the county needs a change at the top, while Dooley defended the direction of the county under his leadership.

Joining Dooley on the Democratic side was 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, along with Joe Passanise from the Constitution Party and the Republican candidates, Green Park Ward 1 Alderman Tony Pousosa and Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. Democratic candidate Ron Levy of Affton and Libertarian candidate Theo “Ted” Brown Sr. of north county did not attend.

Dooley and Stenger have not been able to come to agreement on a planned St. Louis Public Radio debate for which Dooley had accepted an invitation. Stenger said that he has accepted six debate invitations that Dooley has not, and that he has prior commitments on the two days Dooley offered for the radio debate, July 31 or Aug. 1.

Dooley and Stenger sat next to each other at the forum, where candidates took turns giving one-minute answers to questions and could not directly engage with other candidates. The event came the same day Dooley’s campaign debuted a television commercial alleging that Stenger, an attorney for his own law firm in Clayton, blamed the victims of a sex-trafficking ring when he served as the court-appointed attorney for a sex trafficker in 2000. Stenger fired back at the “despicable” allegation with his own television commercial later in the week.

However, at the forum itself, the challengers kept to the issues and focused on slamming the economic prospects of the county under Dooley. Although Stenger, Passanise and the Republican candidates disagreed with each other on some individual issues, they united in their assessment of the county’s poor performance since Dooley took over a decade ago, citing statistics on the thousands of jobs that have left the county and the number of corruption investigations into county departments.

“St. Louis County should be the economic engine of the state,” Stenger said. “We have suffered from a lack of engaged leadership for 10 years, and the facts don’t lie. We’ve had $3.5 billion of wealth leave the county over the last 10 years. We have a net 39,000 jobs lost over the last 10 years.

“These are the facts — and this is going on while the current county executive is running on being No. 1 in jobs.”

The challengers also agreed that every county department needs to be audited.

Stenger called for a forensic audit, while Pousosa called for a state audit. Stream and Passanise said that they would determine what type of audit needed to be done once they were elected.

While Stream and Passanise kept their criticisms to Dooley, Pousosa also criticized Stenger — whom he ran against for the County Council two years ago — for not already calling for an audit in his role as a member of the council.

Pousosa said he is the only candidate against the city-county merger from the beginning, and Stream and Passanise said they are opposed.

“Being opposed to the city-county merger from the beginning and being a municipal official, I think it’s important to realize that people still believe in small government that they can control — if the city and county merge, you will lose your voice,” Pousosa said, noting that Green Park residents are taken seriously at Green Park City Hall. “I’ve been down to Clayton, and I get shuffled in and out just like anybody else.”

Stenger said he would not make a decision about the city-county merger as county executive, and that it would be up to the people to consider studies and data and decide if they wanted a merger — anything else would be “imprudent and unwise.”

Dooley backed off from previous statements in support of a full merger, instead endorsing only the city of St. Louis entering the county as a municipality.

Fighting back against the many critiques of his job performance offered by the four men angling for his job, Dooley referred throughout the two-hour forum to the county and its “simply outstanding” qualities — in turn, he listed the Police Department, the crime rate, the women’s shelter, the Children’s Service Fund and the recycling program as “simply outstanding.”

He asked voters to return him to the top job to keep everything running smoothly, since he has the experience, leadership and knowledge to make the tough choices the county needs.

Running a county like St. Louis County is not as easy as it may seem, Dooley added.

“They don’t even know what they don’t know — they don’t have a clue,” he said of his opponents. “As we move forward, experience does matter, and leadership does count. And I’m the only one at this table that truly understands what it takes to be leadership — and sometimes it’s not pleasant. You want to talk about the trash (districts)? It wasn’t politically to my advantage, but it was the right thing to do.”

Stenger, who was elected to his council seat in 2008, has consistently maintained throughout the election cycle that county government under Dooley is under three separate FBI investigations — of the Department of Health, the Children’s Service Fund and the police board.

Dooley, however, fought back strongly against that allegation.

“The Dooley administration has never been under any type of investigation — be it federal, state or local — so if you heard that it’s a lie, an untruth that’s in their mouth,” Dooley said. “You hear all types of things in an election.”

To the other candidates, things in the county are not “simply outstanding.”

“First, I don’t think everything is outstanding,” Stenger said in response to a question about the pending $5.9 million judgment against the county for not notifying trash haulers when the county established trash districts in 2007. Dooley said that the county should not pay the judgment — which is adding interest at a 9 percent annual rate — at all.

“We must begin to create a climate where business wants to grow and add jobs, and I’m the person that can do it,” Stream said. “We all agree the county government right now is a mess … but I have the experience, skills and passion to turn our county around.”

Passanise said, “I will also eliminate any administrative policies that permit a manager to embezzle millions of dollars over a period of years — that should never have happened. And I will obey the law, the law that says I need to take care of informing the trash haulers in advance. We’re paying $5 million for that decision on (Dooley’s) part.”