In the 30 years The Call has been covering St. Louis County government, it has historically been the Democrats on the County Council who have repressed free speech and public comment, while Republicans have been the voice of reason arguing that residents should have more access to their public officials.
Democrats wanted public comments at the end of meetings; Republicans moved them to the beginning, where they stayed until last month.
Democrats wanted meetings to stay during the day, when they were inconvenient for county citizens to attend; Republicans moved them to the evening for greater access.
And so it went for decades, although Republicans last held the council majority in 2008.
But the GOP gained a temporary majority over the summer due to fallout from the resignation of former County Executive Steve Stenger.
They elected 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas of Oakville as presiding officer, or acting chairman, for the rest of the year, and until last month we would have applauded the job he did in that office.
But instead of upholding the council tradition of Republicans encouraging open government, all the Republicans and some of the Democrats moved public comments to the end at two meetings. That only lasted for two weeks in November, and then the council appeared to back off.
But it never should have happened. We applaud 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, who represents Crestwood and parts of Affton, for standing against it both times.
We also didn’t appreciate the ominous warning that went along with the vote to move comments — not every public body even takes comments, you know. We’re doing you a favor by allowing them at all.
Trakas also unilaterally imposed new restrictions like adding a dozen police officers to guard meetings, even though no one received any threats. One speaker likened the heightened security to a “police state.” If a resident wants to speak, they are only granted entry by a police officer who lifts a rope barrier.
The media now have to stay in a “designated area,” keeping their notebooks and cameras conveniently away from elected officials. Residents also must stay in their seats or leave.
This is the wrong message to send to county residents who trekked through rush hour traffic to speak their piece in Clayton. And it is not the County Council we have known for 30 years, which over time has provided more access to public officials rather than less. It sends the wrong message to county citizens and takes police officers off the streets they should be patrolling instead.
It’s no secret that Republicans face an uphill battle in ever getting an elected council majority in St. Louis County again.
These few months were Republican members’ time to shine and show citizens why a GOP majority is what the county wants. And they were very close to scoring, but their quarterback fumbled before they reached the end zone.
The Democratic majority takes over as chair in January. Let’s hope its first act will be to tear down the barriers, both literal and figurative, that Republicans have erected around public comments at the County Council.
This new “security” is unnecessary and sends the wrong message to county residents and the media that they are not welcome at council meetings.