St. Louis County Council clashes over chair, vice chair, as four members call special meeting today

Councilman+Ernie+Trakas+angrily+objects+to+Councilman+Tim+Fitch%27s+attempt+to+elect+a+new+chair+and+vice+chair+at+the+videoconferenced+council+meeting+Tuesday%2C+Jan.+13%2C+2021.+Trakas+was+attending+from+home.+

Councilman Ernie Trakas angrily objects to Councilman Tim Fitch’s attempt to elect a new chair and vice chair at the videoconferenced council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Trakas was attending from home.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

A bipartisan coalition of four members of the St. Louis County Council are calling a special meeting of the council today to elect a new chair and vice chair for 2021 — something the three other members say has already been done.

The special videoconferenced council meeting is set for 4:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15. To join the meeting via computer, use this link: SC0115.

Members of the public can also listen to the live audio of the meeting by dialing 1-408-418-9388 United States Toll – Access Code: 132 724 9712.

Under a change voters made to the county Charter in 2019, new council members and the county executive are no longer sworn in Jan. 1, as had been the custom for decades. Instead of holding the inauguration on a holiday, the council and the county executive are sworn in on the second Tuesday of the year.

But this year, the first year the changes have been implemented, that led to a dispute over who holds the office the first Tuesday of the year when the first council meeting is held if the office is switching to a new person. This year, the first council meeting was Jan. 5, and the second Tuesday when everyone was sworn in was Jan. 12.

Who holds office on what day matters because the council leadership is typically voted on at the first meeting of the year.

But this year, incoming 4th District Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, who defeated incumbent Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, in the Democratic primary, didn’t take office until Jan. 12, while the council majority held the leadership election to renominate Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, as chair at the Jan. 5 meeting.

In one of her first acts on the council, Webb joined with 1st District Councilwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, to call a meeting and allow herself to have the opportunity to vote for this year’s council leadership.

With a key vote from Gray, Clancy was elected chair for the second year in a row at the Jan. 5 meeting and 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, was elected vice chair the first time in modern history the council has ever split leadership positions by party. Clancy and Trakas were elected 4-3, with Clancy, Trakas, 2nd District Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield and Gray voting for them and the other three voting against. The other three voted for Days as chair instead, and Harder for vice chair.

Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, tells Councilman Tim Fitch that she would rather adjourn the meeting than continue listening to him interrupt the videoconferenced council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

But now the other four members are trying to hold elections to elect a separate chair and vice chair, with Fitch nominated as presiding officer, the equivalent of chair. When Clancy wouldn’t allow a vote on that resolution at the meeting Tuesday, the council devolved into accusations of bullying from both sides and then adjourned without hearing public comments or conducting most of its public business.

Fitch said after the meeting that Clancy, who had called him out twice during the meeting for bullying and holding up council business, had called the police to remove him from the meeting. She called for him to be placed on mute, but he knew how to unmute himself. Fitch, Harder and Days were sitting on the council dais as they normally would during in-person meetings, but were attending by videoconference. Clancy and Webb were attending from their council offices down the hall. Trakas and Dunaway were attending from home.

Trakas interjected near the end of the meeting Tuesday, noting that the council had received a “lengthy, comprehensive legal memorandum” on the issue “that clearly establishes your motion as unrecognizable. There’s been no removal of the chair or vice chair, you’re just being an obstructionist and I’m sick of it.”

Over interjections from Fitch, Trakas continued, “Why don’t you quit being a bully or if you choose to bully someone, bully someone who can push back, sir. We’ve had enough of you, we’ve had enough of you, sir. You’re a fool.”

Seventh District Councilman Mark Harder and 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch nominate 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas to serve as presiding officer of the St. Louis County Council at a May 2019 meeting. (Photo by Erin Achenbach)

In a press release issued by Harder’s office, the councilman — the most senior member of the council — said that Webb was “systematically denied the opportunity to vote by previous Chairwoman Lisa Clancy.” 

Harder said in the release, “Chairwoman Clancy acknowledged that there was a flaw in the Charter language, adopted in 2019, that allowed for this, but did not take action to ensure that the people of the 4th District would be represented by the person they duly elected in November 2020. Delaying our first meeting of 2021 until all the new councilmembers had been sworn in would have avoided this problem.” 

Council Rule 3 allows “any four members of the council” to call a special meeting by notifying the county clerk.

The four members made a motion at Tuesday’s council meeting to hold another vote on chair and vice chair, with Fitch nominated as presiding officer.

But Clancy said, “The motion is illegal and I would like for the county counselor to share her legal findings with us.”

County Counselor Beth Orwick said any vote taken by the four members wouldn’t be legal.

“They can have the vote, however what they’re asking to vote on, or Councilman Fitch is asking to vote on, is not a valid motion, it is not legal,” Orwick said. “They can have the vote, however the ending will be the same —  it is not a legal motion. If they were to do that, it would not have any effect either way, they can vote on it but it would not be more of a statement of intent. However it would be improper to hold such an actual vote for any chair and vice chair per the Charter and Robert’s Rules of Order.”

The council is expected to take up legislation later to rectify the discrepancy between terms in the Charter going forward, Harder added.