By Gloria Lloyd
Pictured: County Executive Steve Stenger, second from left, listens to Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, address the council Oct. 17, left to right: 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.
In an unprecedented move, four members of the County Council filed a lawsuit Monday to force County Executive Steve Stenger and two other county officials to bow to the council members’ wish to fully staff the county auditor’s office.
Most of the council Democrats and one Republican, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, filed the lawsuit against Stenger, County Counselor Peter Krane and acting Personnel Director Sue Daniels.
The same council alliance approved a resolution Oct. 3 that vowed to sue the county if Stenger did not agree to hire more auditors on to the staff of county Auditor Mark Tucker, who was hired by the same group of council members in February but has not yet produced an audit.
Tucker has been at the center of an ongoing battle between Stenger and the four council members in the alliance — Trakas, council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack — who oppose the county executive on nearly every issue.
The council members question in the lawsuit whether Stenger has interfered with the county’s separation of powers they say is protected by the Missouri Constitution, since they budgeted for the auditors and he has declined to add them to the county payroll.
Trakas and the other council members say the new auditor has hit roadblocks in trying to conduct his county Charter-mandated audits because his single deputy staff member quit when he was hired, leaving him alone in an office that they say would be understaffed even if it had the two more auditors called for in this year’s budget. They blame a “hiring slushie” enforced by Stenger’s county Chief of Operations Glenn Powers for Tucker’s lack of audits.
But Stenger maintains that the county has always functioned with just two auditors in the auditor’s office and that the council could have seen some audits this year if it had either kept former Auditor David Makarewicz on the job, or hired someone more qualified than Tucker. The new auditor “does not meet the Charter requirements for the position of St. Louis County auditor and, in fact, had no professional auditing experience prior to his hiring by the council,” Stenger said in a statement.
The day after the council passed the resolution to potentially sue Stenger, Krane sent a letter to the council members’ preferred outside attorney, Clayton-based Bick Kistner, refusing to authorize releasing the funds for the council to sue the county or Stenger.
Stenger called the lawsuit a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“In effect, the plaintiffs’ lawsuit is asking the public to pay for another full-time employee that the county does not need merely to cover up for Tucker’s incompetence,” Stenger said in a statement.
The lawsuit notes that other counties staff their auditor’s offices with far more employees than St. Louis County, which Trakas cited earlier this month as his primary reason for supporting a potential lawsuit against Stenger.
“We’ll see where that goes, I certainly didn’t cast a vote for it to be symbolic,” Trakas said of the resolution. “This is about separation of powers and about the ability for this county to have a fully staffed auditor’s office … This is about the one office that the council has some influence over being fully staffed, and that in turn takes us to the separation of powers argument and having a legislative body that is able to function as envisioned, as it should.”
At that time, Trakas, an attorney, said he hoped the council would not have to take the drastic step of actually suing Stenger.
“I don’t know that there’s anyone on the council more familiar with or understands better the stress and cost involved in litigation, so I’m not looking at this lightly or in any way lightly,” Trakas said. “And I hope we don’t have to go there, I really do. But I also know that in order for a county of our size to function properly, we need a fully staffed auditor’s office.”