Should county executive be ceremonial? Charter panel considers county manager

Pictured above: Former County Executive Steve Stenger, left, talks to then council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, at the Aug. 1 council meeting. Page became county executive April 19, after Stenger resigned from the position and pled guilty to federal corruption charges. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com 

The St. Louis County Charter Commission is exploring the possibility of changing the structure of county government, making the county executive position more of a ceremonial role while installing a “county manager” similar to a city administrator.

The idea comes from former 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, who retired from the council Dec. 31 and is now a member of the Charter Commission. It was first introduced at the Charter panel just weeks after former County Executive Steve Stenger, a Democrat and onetime council ally of Wasinger, pleaded guilty to three federal corruption charges.

The commission is meeting weekly this year to decide what changes to make to the county Charter. Any proposal would have to be approved by voters.

The board heard comments last month from former Clayton Mayor Benjamin Uchitelle, who suggested that the county be run like some municipalities in the region that use a city administrator or manager.

Uchitelle, who served as the mayor of Clayton from 1991 to 1998 and again from 2004 to 2007, spoke during the public forum at the May 15 commission meeting, after attending several of the panel’s meetings in the past.

The current Charter calls for a full-time county executive, who is paid $140,000. The executive appoints a staff including a chief of operations and a chief of staff who run day-to-day government, but the county executive is on site running the show.

Under the proposal for a county manager, the county executive post would become largely ceremonial.

Currently, St. Louis County’s government is divided between executive power granted to the county executive and legislative power granted to the County Council, which consists of seven members, one elected from each council district of roughly 150,000 residents.

Under a council-manager form of county government, a county board would be elected by the voters and the board itself would then appoint a county administrator.

Similar to how a city manager runs day-to-day operations in cities like Crestwood and Sunset Hills, a county administrator oversees the everyday operations of county facilities, programs and staff, as well as providing staff support to a county board when it comes to creating policies and making financial decisions.

Uchitelle said that during his time as Clayton mayor, the city manager reported to the Board of Aldermen and the mayor but carried out the day-to-day operations of the city, as well as the long-term vision of the city, subject to the mayor and the board’s recommendations and approval.

“The city manager reports to us. We can’t tell, for example, the head of public works what to do. We have to say, ‘City manager, we think you should do that. We think you should do this,’’” said Uchitelle in comments to the commission. “It’s a good relationship when it works, and it works very frequently.”

Wasinger questioned if the city manager was appointed by the mayor and board or if the position was filled through a different procedure. Uchitelle said that it was the mayor and board’s responsibility to appoint the city manager, but the directors of departments were appointed by the city manager, with some review by the aldermen. In the event that the city manager would need to be removed, the board and the mayor had the power to vote them out with a majority vote.

“It’s a government that works very well in Clayton, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, and I think it would work well in St. Louis County,” said Uchitelle.

Wasinger’s successor on the council, 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, appointed her to the panel and said that since a county administrator would be a professional employee, they would not be subject to taking campaign contributions and doing the bidding of donors, unlike Stenger.

Since the county administrator would be subject to the council and county executive, who would serve more as a figurehead, they could make sure the administrator was truly operating in the county’s best interest and not in the interest of donors.

Currently there are no counties in Missouri with a county manager form of government, although there are several in Illinois, including Peoria County and DeKalb County, which encompasses part of the Chicago metropolitan area.

Although no decision or consensus was reached by the commission on whether the county government structure should change to one with a county manager, panel member Christopher Grahn-Howard, legislative assistant for 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, suggested that if the government structure is revamped in any capacity, proposals should be drafted and presented to the commission by July to allow for adequate discussion time.

County voters decide if a commission should convene on years that end in 8 to decide if any changes should be made to the Charter. Last November, voters voted for the panel to be held.

The commission is charged with coming up with amendments to the current Charter, or creating a new one altogether, by Dec. 31. The commission could decide that no changes are necessary.

Any amendments, or a new Charter, would have to be approved by 60 percent of commission members, or nine out of 14. Voters also approve any changes.