More oversight is always better than less, even now

Editorial

More+oversight+is+always+better+than+less%2C+even+now

What is the best way to spend the $175 million St. Louis County will receive in federal funds for the coronavirus response? Who should make those decisions?

With a corrupt county executive ousted only a year ago and elections for county executive and council members only a few months away, partisanship has taken over the debate on this issue in Clayton.

The decision on oversight of the funds is currently in the hands of County Executive Sam Page, who will have near-total control of how the funds are spent if the council voted Tuesday — after The Call went to press — to appropriate the full $173.5 million, allowing Page to decide where the money goes without any more official council votes.

That doesn’t sit well with Republicans or many residents who are gun-shy about these types of massive money decisions considering the turmoil the county has been through in only the last year due to the contract shenanigans of former County Executive Steve Stenger, who treated a much smaller but similarly uncommitted pile of cash, the $4 million the county annually makes off the River City Casino, as his personal piggy bank to reward campaign donors.

Notably, Stenger’s misuse of the casino payments seems to have started with the county’s response to the unrest in Ferguson, another crisis that required millions of dollars in emergency funds in response.

Is the county better off because Stenger spent those funds quickly? No, money was wasted on fake marketing contracts to businessman John Rallo, among other follies.

If a county executive can reward friends and donors with lucrative contracts doled out from a $4 million pot of money, just imagine what could be done with $173.5 million.

We have no issue with Page’s stated goals for the COVID-19 funds so far, and it’s not hyperbole to say that acting quickly could save lives. But misspending this money could also risk lives, as the money never goes to the purpose it was intended.

A “transparency portal” itself is not enough oversight. Remember that Stenger used his own budget portal to brag about his own transparency.

If the Republicans were to repeatedly hold up key votes on funding, as council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, says they will based on past behavior, then we would support taking a different tactic.

Until then, let the council vote and do its job overseeing county funds.