Pictured above: County Executive Steve Stenger, left, talks to council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, at the Aug. 1 council meeting. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.
By Gloria Lloyd
The outside attorney for the St. Louis County Council wants taxpayers to fund legal bills for its lawsuits, but County Executive Steve Stenger is refusing to pay.
The council last month overrode Stenger’s veto of a bill mandating that taxpayers pay for the council’s outside attorneys for its Ethics Committee investigations.
But the $33,000 in bills submitted to the county in November by that outside attorney, Elkin Kistner of Bick & Kistner, date back nearly a year and go beyond the Ethics Committee to reimburse Kistner for time spent on the council’s lawsuit against Stenger and time spent in court on a case to throw out the council’s proposed amendments to the county Charter that were on the ballot in the August primary election — despite council members saying they were intervening in that case as individuals.
The council has approved at least three special contracts with Bick & Kistner for that work during the last year. The vote for the latest contract Dec. 5 was 6-1, with then-5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, opposed.
Most of the bills Kistner has submitted were for $30,954.50 for work on the council’s lawsuit against Stenger, in which a judge ruled in the council’s favor, along with $585 for legal research on the Sunshine Law.
Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said the council had to hire its own attorney in order to counter Stenger’s illegal moves.
“The news headline should have been ‘County executive broke the law, and the judge ordered him to stop it,’” Page said. “He violates the Charter and the law.”
But Stenger is refusing to pay the invoices, saying in a letter to the council that they are illegal under the county Charter and too much money to pay when the county is operating under a “tight budget.”
The county executive calls the legal bills one of the “two most shocking things I’ve seen in the last two years” in county government, along with the continued employment of county Auditor Mark Tucker.
“I’m going to fight for my people,” Stenger said. “The council will say, ‘It’s Steve Stenger fighting this,’ when I think the majority of St. Louis County voters would stand behind me and say that’s just ludicrous.”
Ultimately, a court will decide what happens, since the legal bills may become part of the ongoing lawsuit between Stenger and the council that spurred most of the legal bills.
The council passed the latest ordinance for Bick & Kistner to work for the council’s Ethics Committee Dec. 5, but Stenger vetoed it Dec. 14, ahead of a veto override Jan. 3.
By that time, Dolan and 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, had been replaced by, respectively, 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, and 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton.
Clancy voted to override Stenger’s veto, but Fitch was the sole vote against it because, he said, county voters had already weighed in against outside attorneys for the council.
In August, county voters narrowly defeated a proposed amendment to the county Charter from the council that would have allowed the council to hire its own attorneys. Stenger opposed the measure.
At the override vote, Page noted that “the County Charter allows us to retain outside counsel with council approval for each employment.”
“For each employment?” Fitch said.
“Yeah, for each issue,” Page replied.
Fitch later said, “The voters decided that we would not use tax dollars to fight ourselves, between ourselves. That’s how I saw that vote. That’s why I voted no.”
In what was Clancy’s first meeting, she said she felt that upcoming investigations of the Ethics Committee were important enough for the council to hire its own attorney.
“The council needs and deserves its own lawyer, especially in handling this sensitive investigation,” she said, and as for Stenger, “On this, we will differ.”
But Stenger said that the council is trying to get taxpayers to pay for their bills at the same time they are cutting the budgets of key departments.
“So I frankly have had it with the council,” Stenger said. “The majority of the council members voted to pay the personal legal bills of four of the council members.”
Some of the bills submitted for public reimbursement are listed with a client address of Page’s house.
One of the bills sent to Page was for $2,230 for work on the St. Louis County Board of Elections vs. Jordan Grommet legal case trying to yank one of the council’s Charter amendments off the ballot.
The judge in that case only allowed the council members to intervene as private individuals, not as members of the council, or they would have had to be represented by the county counselor, who was there to represent them.
“If you read the petition, and Stenger knows this, it says that we’re intervening as individuals in our official capacity, that’s how the judge was recognizing us,” Page said. “Let’s say his own argument was true and he was sued — then how could he hire lawyers to defend himself?”
Asked at the time if taxpayers were going to pay council members’ legal bills for actions taken as individuals, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, said, “I haven’t seen a bill.”
Last week, however, Trakas said he could see arguments in favor of both paying and not paying the bills from that case.
On one hand, the council members were acting as individuals. But on the other hand, they were acting in the public interest, Trakas said. The Charter amendments they fought to get on the ballot were mostly approved by large majorities, with the exception of the one that they could hire their own attorney, which was defeated.
“It’s not an easy one to answer… That makes it difficult to justify the county paying for it, I’m not going to mince words about it,” Trakas said. “On the other hand, it’s the public’s interest that we’re really serving.”
The Charter mandates that the county only has one attorney, the county counselor. But it also states that outside attorneys can be hired if the county counselor declares a conflict. County Counselor Peter Krane, who was appointed by Stenger, has held that any disputes with the council are disagreements rather than conflicts.
Although he showed up in court to represent the council on the Grommet case, he would not have made the arguments the council wanted him to make and was “in the tank” with the opposing side, Trakas noted: “It was an absolute conflict, not just a disagreement.”
As for Stenger refusing to pay the bills, Trakas said, “I don’t know where that will end up — I’m sure more litigation.”