Fitch, Ward square off in County Council 3

Fitch%2C+Ward+square+off+in+County+Council+3

Staff Report 

Former St. Louis County police Chief Tim Fitch, Republican, will square off against Democrat Paul Ward, a former Kirkwood city councilman, to represent the 3rd District on the St. Louis County Council.

The seat is currently held by Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, who is stepping down. The seat represents most of Sunset Hills, part of Crestwood and unincorporated areas including parts of Sappington and Concord.

Fitch, 57, 1903 Lance End Drive, Fenton, and his wife, Ruth, have two adult children, Sarah and Ryan, and one grandson. After serving as police chief from 2009 to 2014, he is currently the manager of global security for Emerson Electric. He was elected in 2016 as the Meramec Township Republican committeeman.

The retired chief is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Missouri Police Chiefs Association, FBI National Academy Associates and DEA Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Committee.

In addition, Fitch serves on the advisory boards for the USO of Missouri and SSM St. Clare Hospital in Fenton. He is on the Council of Regents for Fontbonne University, a member of St. Paul Church in Fenton and a committeeman on the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee.

Fitch earned his Bachelor of Science Degree in criminal justice from Truman State University and his master’s degree in management from Fontbonne University.

When asked why he was running for office, Fitch said, “Continue my service to the public, as I did as a police officer for 31 years in St. Louis County.  I’m a lifelong resident of the metro area and have worked in county government, the private sector and I’m a small-business owner.  These experiences will serve the residents and businesses of District 3 well.”

Ward, 62, 310 New York Street, Kirkwood, is the father of two children, Kerrick and Adriene, and works as a training manager for Renewal by Anderson.

He served as a councilman for 14 years on the Kirkwood City Council and is a member of the Kirkwood Baptist Church, Kirkwood Family YMCA Executive Board and St. Claire Health Center Advisory Board.

Ward studied architectural drafting at St. Louis Community College.

When asked why he was seeking office, Ward said, “To act as representative of residents of St. Louis District 3.”

The candidates gave the following responses to a Call questionnaire: 

What issue do you consider the single most important issue in this race and why?

Fitch said, “Public safety in our county continues to be the most important issue.  We must make sure that Proposition P funds are reserved for public-safety purposes only.  We need to define and codify ‘public safety.’  When the public was educated on the proposition, we were told the funds were going to be used for police pay, benefits and equipment.  After the tax was approved, the funds have been spent inappropriately for items outside of what the voters wanted.  If we can rein in the ‘non-police’ expenses, we have an opportunity to go back to the voters and ask them to reduce the sales tax while keeping our promise to law enforcement.”

Ward said, “Council unity, county revitalization, employee pay equity and balancing the budget.”

Other issues you perceive in your race and your position on each:

Fitch said, “City/county merger: I’m against a merger of the city into the county, and I’m against a combination of city and county government. Any type of merger is not in the best interest of the county and will not improve our regional competitiveness. This doesn’t mean we cannot share resources when it’s in the best interest of our citizens.

“Metro (BiState) Funding: Metro continues to lose ridership year after year.  Many perceive the system as being unsafe. At the same time, our county arterial roads and subdivision streets are crumbling and need to be updated. We need to transfer more transportation dollars to the county roadway system instead of increasing Metro’s budget.    

“Taxes: Taxes are too high.  Real-estate and personal property taxes continue to increase.  This is especially difficult for those living on fixed incomes.  Taxes are forcing some to move out of St. Louis County or to downsize their homes.  We need to investigate ways to cap taxes on those living on fixed incomes. We also need to re-evaluate all current taxes and rates.  Just because they were approved decades ago doesn’t mean we need to continue the tax.  If we can vote them in, we can vote them out.

“County government structure: The St. Louis County Council needs to continue to work toward being a true check and balance on the executive branch of county government.  This can be accomplished with the establishment of a County Charter Commission.  Every 10 years, voters decide whether to appoint a Charter Commission.  We will see this issue on the November ballot.  If voters approve, the commission may recommend changes to the county Charter that will support an equal sharing of power between the branches of government. As the Charter is currently written, most of the governing power is placed under the control of the county executive.

“St. Louis Zoo tax (Prop Z):  I love the St. Louis Zoo. However, the time has come to ask residents from outside the taxing district to pay their fair share to use the zoo.  I’m against another increase to the sales tax to support the zoo.

“St. Louis Lambert International Airport: The airport is in negotiation behind closed doors to possibly privatize the airport.  The airport is owned by the city of St. Louis but is entirely within St. Louis County.  St. Louis County should have a seat at the table during these discussions.  The airport is a regional asset, or liability. It is a monopoly, as we do not have other choices.”

Ward said, “Economic development, continued safety improvement, partner with the area’s declining school districts to help facilitate improvement for our youth and future residents.”

Do you believe the St. Louis County Planning Commission is responsive to county residents? How long should appointees serve on the Planning Commission? Is there anything about the zoning process that should change?

Fitch said, “The Planning Commission is an advisory board to the St. Louis County Council. They make no final decisions. They are generally responsive to county residents, but elected county officials are ultimately responsible for final decisions. One major change I would recommend is that all the planning commissioners — there are nine — be appointed to terms of office that expire. Currently, only one commissioner is operating within a full term of office. The other eight have terms that have expired, but they continue to serve on the commission. The county executive should be required to seek reappointment at the end of the commissioner’s term, or the member can no longer serve. Recent county executives have used expired terms of office to control his appointees. In other words, if you don’t do what he wants, you can be threatened with immediate replacement. With a hard term in office, commissioners have some political independence from the appointing official. Additionally, for planning and zoning matters that generate a lot of public interest, the meetings should be held at a location within the County Council district where the project will be rezoned or built. Residents should not be forced to make a trip to Clayton to speak for/against a proposal in their own backyard.”

Ward said, “Boards and commissions should be filled with people who are aware of the responsibility to listen to citizens’ concerns and have a good understanding of the zoning ordinances and how to properly deliberate issues before that body.”

What is your position on incorporation?

Fitch said, “My position is that it’s up to residents to decide if they want to incorporate into a new city or annex into a current city.  However, I’m not in favor of increasing the number of municipalities in St. Louis County.  St. Louis County government provides good local services at a fair price to the unincorporated areas.  We do not need more fragmentation.  For municipalities seeking to disincorporate on their own — such as Peerless Park, St. George and Mackenzie — I believe St. Louis County government should provide any assistance needed such as legal work at no charge to the municipality.”

Ward said, “If the question is in reference to the county and the city of St. Louis, I believe the issue deserves in-depth discussion, serious scrutiny and accountability reforms by city leadership. Once those steps are done by both parties, we can decide what is best of our citizens.”

Do you agree with the County Council’s 2001 decision to change its meetings to the evening from the afternoon? Do you agree with the council’s 2018 decision to change its meetings to 6:30 p.m. from 6 p.m.?

Fitch said, “Yes, I agree with anything government can do to make it easier for the public to participate.  I will also be recommending livestreaming on social media platforms such as Facebook Live all County Council meetings.”

Ward said, “Yes, allowing those that we serve an opportunity to view and interject on issues affecting them individually or the county should be given that time.”

Do you believe the County Council should approve legislation or the voters should approve a Charter amendment prohibiting council members from accepting campaign contributions from developers? Should council members vote on rezoning and development projects submitted by campaign contributors?

Fitch said, “As a candidate for County Council, I have not accepted any contributions from any source.  However, for elected officials that choose to accept contributions, they should not be allowed to accept contributions from developers with St. Louis County projects.  If they can accept donations from developers, they should abstain from any vote related to the developer’s project(s).  Prohibiting donations from developers would be an appropriate addition to the Charter.”

Ward said, “I have no objection to the voter or the council approving such legislation. Citizens need to believe that their representatives can’t be unduly influenced.”

Are you satisfied with the current state of the county’s assessment process?

Fitch said, “No. I believe there should be a cap on private property taxes, despite the assessor’s opinion on the increase in the property value. Additionally, we should explore a cap on property taxes for those living on fixed incomes, such as senior citizens.”

Ward said, “Not personally, but we should always be looking for continuous improvement of the taxing process and the affect higher taxes are having on all of us. From a personal (view), I believe my worth isn’t in what we own but what we earn.”

Are you satisfied with the direction the county is headed under County Executive Steve Stenger?

Fitch said, “The voters of St. Louis County just re-elected him to another four-year term. Steve is a person I can work with, as I did for many years before he was the county executive. This doesn’t mean we’ll always be on the same page. However, I won’t be an automatic ‘no’ on his agenda when it benefits St. Louis County.

“I will draw the line any time I see county tax dollars being misused or county projects being awarded to campaign donors.  Steve has always been a supporter of law enforcement, however, we differed greatly on the wording of Proposition P and how it was sold to the public. As it turns out, my concerns with the wording of the tax increase were well-founded.”

Ward said, “Absolutely not. He has not set a positive tone nor demonstrated the deportment that will allow the council to focus on or deliberate effectively for county residents.”

Are you satisfied with the spending of Prop P funds so far?

Fitch said, “No. I predicted the funds would be misappropriated to non-police expenditures because of the vague definition of ‘public safety.’ The proposition was written this way by design – so the funds could be used on almost anything.

“The public believed they were voting to improve police coverage, pay and benefits. Now the money is being spent on raises for Health Department employees, secretaries in the prosecuting attorney’s office, accountants, clerks and for many other non-police purposes. The police were used to sell the tax to the voters, and now the money is being diverted to non-police functions.  The County Council needs to define ‘public safety’ and draw a hard line around it, or the funds will continue to be misspent.”

Ward said, “I was personally skeptical of vagueness of the proposition’s wording. I believe the issues with spending is a direct result of the county executive and council to communicate over spending.”

What measures, if any, will you propose to encourage economic development in south county?

Fitch said, “I will work with District 5 and District 6 councilpersons to improve the business community in south county.  We are starting to see a decline in big-box stores in south county. We do not want to see South County Center end up like Crestwood Plaza.

“We’ll need to actively encourage economic development in our business districts by encouraging investment in businesses that cannot be affected by e-commerce. Health care is vitally important as south county matures. The new Mercy South Hospital (formerly St. Anthony’s) and St. Clare Hospital are in District 3. I will work with them to improve their services in the south county area.”

Ward said, “Having oversight of multiple commercial and residential developments for the city of Kirkwood, there is no simple answer. We need to be comprehensive and take a look at the county as a whole. Each area has unique characteristics and needs. What I can say is my experience has been that government should create fertile ground for fair rules for all and not pick winners and losers.”

Are cuts needed to balance the county’s budget, as the council said last year?

Fitch said, “If elected, the 2019 budget will have already been approved by the time I’m sworn in. My first input will be in the 2020 budget. We’ll have to look at revenues and expenditures as well as long-term projections. The council was correct to withhold funds in the 2018 budget. We’ll see how the 2019 budget is handled by the county executive. Sales taxes continue to be flat, mostly due to e-commerce.  County expenditures continue to increase.”

Ward said, “Absolutely, but they should be surgically applied when necessary. It is proper to have budget imbalances, but those should be explained to the St. Louis County stakeholders. More importantly the overarching duty of the council is to present a balanced budget.”

Should the County Council have its own attorney besides the county counselor?

Fitch said, “The county executive caused this issue by requiring his appointed county counselor to represent his views alone on various matters. The county counselor is supposed to represent both. The County Council was forced to take the matter to a judge after the county executive cut the council’s budget, effectively shutting them down.

“I believe Stenger’s budget-cutting action was improper and contrary to our system of checks and balances. The county executive doesn’t control the County Council. The voters do. “However, there are many issues to resolve before allowing the County Council to have its own attorney. I don’t like the idea of using tax dollars for opposing attorneys to fight it out while sending our residents the bill from both sides of the argument. What if there is a disagreement between members within the council?  Which side will the County Council’s attorney be responsive? The county counselor is currently selected by the county executive and approved or not by the County Council. “Clearly, the county counselor is working at the pleasure of the person who appointed him, so he’s always going to side with that person. However, my recommendation would be to amend the county Charter to allow removal of the county counselor by a supermajority of the County Council members. This action can be taken if the county counselor is not being responsive to the needs of the County Council. The Charter can also be amended so the county executive cannot replace the county counselor during the county executive’s term of office without a supermajority of the County Council voting for removal.”

Ward said, “I believe that is a wise practice for the council as well as the citizens. The council needs good legal advice in multifaceted legislative issues they regularly face.”

Do you support the construction of a new county police station at Sappington and Gravois?

Fitch said, “I absolutely support the construction of a new police station for the Affton Southwest Precinct. It is well past due for replacement. However, my desire would have been to locate it in a more central location within the precinct, such as the area near Tesson Ferry and South Lindbergh. I would keep a substation in the Affton area near the current location.”

Ward said, “I generally support law enforcement. I would need  more information to give a definitive answer.”

What will you do to oversee spending from Proposition P?

Fitch said, “No. I predicted the funds would be misappropriated to non-police expenditures because of the vague definition of ‘public safety.’ The proposition was written this way by design – so the funds could be used on almost anything.

“The public believed they were voting to improve police coverage, pay and benefits. Now the money is being spent on raises for Health Department employees, secretaries in the prosecuting attorney’s office, accountants, clerks and for many other non-police purposes. The police were used to sell the tax to the voters, and now the money is being diverted to non-police functions.  The County Council needs to define ‘public safety’ and draw a hard line around it, or the funds will continue to be misspent.”

Ward said, “Utilize the council’s oversight authority, discussions with county executive and the chief of police.”

What is your opinion of the performance of county Auditor Mark Tucker?

Fitch said, “The County Auditor has not performed the duties as required by the auditor.  In January, the new County Council will have an opportunity to replace Mr. Tucker.  I believe he should be replaced by a person with professional credentials that include being a Certified Public Accountant.”

Ward said, “I have not focused on his issues other than those reported by the media? I would want firsthand perspective on his performance to make a decision on his performance as our auditor.”

What are your thoughts on the St. Louis County police?

Fitch said, “I’m an assessor and team leader for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA. I’ve assessed more than 50 large police agencies in the United States, to include the New York Police Department and Chicago Police Department. I can say that St. Louis County Police Department is among the best in the nation.

“However, there is room for improvement. The Board of Police Commissioners oversees the department, according to the Charter of St. Louis County. The board was set up in 1955 to keep politics out of law enforcement as much as possible. The members of the board are nominated by the county executive and approved by the County Council. They serve staggered three-year terms in office, which effectively keeps the county executive from replacing all of them at one time. Currently, all but one of the five members of the board are operating on expired terms of office. By keeping the board on expired terms, the county executive can control their decisions. If he doesn’t like their decisions, he can immediately remove them since they are serving on an expired term.

“The county Charter should be amended to require, upon expiration of their term, re-nomination by the county executive for another term or nomination of a new member. This removes much of the political control the county executive has over board members, allowing them to make decisions independent of the county executive.”

Ward said, “The department needs to continue efforts to improve the perception that some residents have about negative police procedures. I would do as I did as a Kirkwood councilman and have a regular meeting with the chief of police.”

What is the biggest issue facing St. Louis County today? What will you do to fix it?

Fitch said, “The biggest issue facing St. Louis County is expanding urban decay and associated crime. We are seeing some parts of St. Louis County having the same issues as the city of St. Louis. We have no control over the government of the city of St. Louis, but we can and must protect St. Louis County.

“I believe the city of St. Louis will tax and spend themselves into bankruptcy in our lifetime. Most politicians do not make significant changes until they are forced to legally and/or economically. Detroit is a prime example. They were forced into bankruptcy in 2013. With bankruptcy and state oversight, Detroit is starting to see reinvestment in the city and there is a real feeling around Detroit that good things are happening. It has been a tough period for Detroit. St. Louis is currently going through the crime and economic crisis Detroit has already experienced. However, I truly believe that we will eventually turn the educational, economic and political corner and re-emerge as a stronger and more vibrant metropolitan area.”   

Ward said, “Stagnant population growth, how to stimulate economically depressed areas in north and south counties. Get the executive branch in a positive work mode.”

What are your thoughts on how the current County Council is operating? Should the council continue pursuing its lawsuit against the county executive?

Fitch said, “The County Council is actively engaged and challenging the county executive like he’s never been challenged before. This is their role. They should not be a rubber stamp for whatever the county executive wants. The County Council should continue to pursue its lawsuit, and I believe they will prevail. With this said, the County Council should not be an automatic ‘no’ for the county executive’s initiatives. Both sides need to be able to disagree but still have mutual respect and seek ways to compromise.”

Ward said, “It would not be my first choice but given the loggerhead that appears to loom over most of the legislative decisions, I would seek legal advice and see if that is the only recourse first.”

If elected, will you accept campaign contributions from developers with projects pending or recently approved in the 3rd District?

Fitch said, “I’m not accepting campaign contributions from any source during my run for the County Council.  This will not change if I’m elected.”

Ward said, “No plans to, but if it did occur I would recuse myself on that issue.”