Jessica Belle Kramer
By Gloria Lloyd
On his first day in office, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page promised to clean up county government. And yes, he knows you’ve heard that promise before.
Former County Executive Steve Stenger made nearly identical promises before and during his four-year tenure in the county’s top job, rising to power on whispers of corruption against former County Executive Charlie Dooley and falling from grace last week when he was indicted, resigned office and then pleaded guilty to three federal corruption charges related to a pay-for-play scheme trading county contracts for campaign donations.
When Stenger entered office, he said his experience in county government and his background as a certified public accountant and attorney would help him crack down on corruption. He pledged a top-to-bottom audit.
Page, a Democrat from Creve Coeur, comes in with a background as an anesthesiologist who has spent about 20 years on the side serving in various levels of government. He was elected to the Creve Coeur City Council in 1999 and re-elected in 2001, then served in the Missouri Legislature for six years before losing a statewide race for lieutenant governor to Republican Peter Kinder in 2012. He was elected to the council in 2014 in a special election to fill the seat of longtime 2nd District Councilwoman Kathleen “Kelly” Burkett, who died in office.
But he is most known to county residents not in his own district as the council chairman elected in January 2017 who was fighting Stenger ever since, even suing the county executive in a case the council won.
As for what qualifies him to be county executive, Page pointed to his 20 years of public service and his time as a doctor.
“In operating rooms we certainly deal with some intense life or death situations on a regular day,” Page said. “I work closely with a team of health care professionals, very closely, and I’m used to delegating responsibilities and duties to people who are qualified. I’m used to being there for critical parts of decisionmaking and stepping back and letting them make decisions and being available when there’s an emergency, checking on them frequently.
“I’m comfortable in a team setting with people who are highly qualified, and that’s how I hope to run St. Louis County.”
While Page acknowledged in his first meeting with reporters as county executive April 30 that there’s no “silver bullet” to restoring public trust in county leadership, he said he plans to consult with county employees who were ignored by past administrations, County Council members and citizens and “set up as many barriers as possible” through policy initiatives to prevent pay-for-play corruption.
Asked how that was different than similar promises Stenger gave when he started as county executive, Page said, “I’ll stand on my record, and I ask for the opportunity to try and accomplish what we are trying to do and ask for the advice of the council and the residents of St. Louis County as we move forward.
“I don’t know what to say other than I believe my track record is different than his, and I’ll try to govern as county executive as I did as county councilman.”
He pledged to review all the contracts that were called into question by the sweeping federal investigation and subpoena into Stenger, which listed dozens of entities that had donated to Stenger and received county deals. He and the council might call in State Auditor Nicole Galloway, he said.
Page will serve as county executive until Dec. 31, 2020, and a special election to fill the rest of Stenger’s term will be held in November 2020. But Page has not yet decided if he will run and said he won’t decide until the end of this year.
In the meantime, he hopes to settle the various open lawsuits related to county government that arose from the battle between the council and Stenger, including a dispute with two dueling Port Authorities, Stenger’s and the council’s.
The previous county executive often missed council meetings, leaving early when he did attend. But Page got applause at the April 30 council meeting when he said he will attend every meeting and actually give the county executive’s report that’s always listed on the agenda — something neither Stenger nor Dooley did.
Unlike Stenger, who called the council a “circus” that was impossible to get along with, Page vowed to collaborate with his former council colleagues on county issues.
They can now move on to other county business after spending the last two years trying to uncover Stenger’s various schemes, something Stenger repeatedly dismissed as “political shenanigans.” But the council’s positions are now validated by the indictment, Page said.
“When we asked questions, we were met with an enormous amount of hostility and anger and aggression,” he said. “That also raised flags, but that also gave the county executive some political cover to argue that this was just politicians fighting and that the council didn’t have merit in their position.
“And a lot of people accepted that explanation because it was believable in our current very polarized state of government at every level. It was an explanation that sold.”
But now he wants to move forward. Since county residents outside of his district are likely unfamiliar with the anesthesiologist from Creve Coeur who now governs them, Page said he hopes to appear at town-hall meetings over the next month alongside each council member in their district.
“There are a lot of people in St. Louis County that I don’t know and I’d like to get to know,” Page said.
As far as South County, which had been represented by Stenger for 10 years, Page said he has experience working with the unique needs of unincorporated residents because he has represented an area between Creve Coeur and Maryland Heights on and off for the last two decades.
He pledged to be bipartisan, working with both sides of the aisle — a necessity since his vacant council seat creates a 3-3 split on the council between Democrats and Republicans.
A special election will be held to fill that vacancy, likely in the fall.
The new county executive started his first day by asking nearly all Stenger’s employees to resign by the end of the day.
He also pledged to appoint entirely new members to the board of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, which featured heavily in the charges Stenger admitted to. The council already created its own Port Authority with a new board.