South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Stenger says he gets more done with a hostile County Council


County Executive Steve Stenger, councilman Sam Page and councilwoman Hazel Erby listen to public comments during the council meeting on July 24. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor

With the rollercoaster relationship between County Executive Stenger and the County Council intensifying in the weeks leading up to Stenger’s re-election bid Aug. 7, he says that he has been able to get more done with a hostile council than with one favorable to him.

For more than a year, Stenger and the council have repeatedly clashed on the separation of powers allowed by the county Charter, whether county Auditor Mark Tucker is qualified — and now, whether Stenger should be re-elected.

Stenger has been masterful at forging bipartisan alliances in the past, but he is now down to a single consistent ally, 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.

And even Dolan voted last week to override one of Stenger’s vetoes. In an echo of Stenger’s own battles against then-County Executive Charlie Dooley, a four-member council majority has graduated to 6-1 votes on most contentious issues this summer, with only Dolan opposed.

It’s one of the reasons Stenger’s challenger in the Democratic primary, Mark Mantovani, says it’s time for a new county executive. He has been endorsed by multiple members of the council, including 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, who asks listeners to vote for “my friend, Mark Mantovani,” in radio ads.

“The worst problem we’ve got in St. Louis County today is that the government is in a stalemate — there’s nothing that can get done because the county executive’s relationship with the County Council is so broken that nothing can get through, there’s so much mistrust,” Mantovani said. “Unless we can alleviate that, I don’t know where the county government goes.”

Stenger said that he’s had five allies on the council and now he’s got one, but he feels he’s gotten even more accomplished under the current council than in the past.

“We’ve been just as successful, and in fact I think our accomplishments have grown since we had that tension on the council,” Stenger said. “So if you ask, ‘Why should he be county executive?’ Look at the results. I think the results speak for themselves.”

The results he points to include changes to shore up the county pension fund with $300 million saved over 10 years, the new countywide sales tax for police and public safety, Proposition P, along with a prescription-drug monitoring program that has signed up most of the counties in the state in the absence of a statewide registry.

Two council members often on opposing sides, Dolan and 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, both agreed at a July 11 joint luncheon of the Affton and Lemay chambers of commerce that county government is functioning just fine.

“I do want to announce today, so that everybody understands, St. Louis County government is open for business, 100 percent,” Dolan said. “We make sure to run the county business as it should be and as you deserve and as you pay for… In this past year we’re been able to accomplish quite a few things, despite what the newspaper might say.”

Trakas said, “I agree with Pat, the County Council is from my perspective, functioning in a high order. We come together on many, many issues, as Pat said. The idea that’s put out in the media that the council is dysfunctional is far from the truth. In fact I would suggest to you that the council is operating in an extremely healthy way, that it is, for the first time in my opinion since its inception 39 years ago, attempting to act as a true check and balance, as the legislative branch should. The councilpeople are engaged, they’re asking questions, looking into tough issues. That’s exactly what a legislative body should do.”

When Stenger spoke to the Tesson Ferry Democrats June 25, a man in the crowd said, “I read the paper, and I do not understand why the County Council doesn’t like you. I don’t understand — I think you’re a very likable guy.”

Stenger laughed, “Well, I’d like to think that I’m really likable, my gosh, you know. It’s just a simple matter of politics. I don’t even think it’s personal, I think it’s really a matter of politics and particularly election-year politics, you know? And I came in defeating a 10-year incumbent, so there’s some built-in animosity there already. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you things change. We had a very happy and pleasant relationship with the council in the past and it changed into one that was acrimonious, and it’ll probably change into something positive in the future.”

Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, has declined to state how his tension with Stenger started, and Stenger said he doesn’t know. He’s spoken more about his relationship with Trakas and how that went quickly downhill when the two disagreed on a new trail for Cliff Cave Park.

Trakas said he has been Stenger’s “pinata from day one” after he opposed the trail, “but now the gloves are off.”

As for Stenger, he said that it’s Trakas who has repeatedly attacked him, including with an investigation of Trakas’ Ethics Committee into the deal for the new North County Government Center at the former Northwest Plaza mall that recommended that federal officials investigate Stenger.

“I’ve met with Ernie on a number of occasions trying to extend an olive branch, and I’ve been hit with a stick,” Stenger said. “He doesn’t want to be friendly, which is his prerogative. We still do the business of St. Louis County.”

Trakas has not minced words on what he thinks of Stenger, criticizing an “utter absence of leadership.” But that can be countered by the council’s newfound strength, he has said. He hopes voters will pass three proposed Charter amendments that could give the council more power over Stenger.

“It’s unprecedented in county history what’s happening right now,” he said.

But as for the idea that Mantovani would fare better with the council, Stenger said any county executive acting in the county’s best interest would push back on the auditor, trail and other issues.

“Play out Mark Mantovani or someone else being county executive — whoever it is is going to run into the same personalities here,” Stenger said. “If you’re county executive, I’m sorry, you’re going to want to see improvements to Cliff Cave Park. And you’re going to run into Ernie Trakas, who’s going to say no. And you’re either going to say, ‘OK, I’m either not going to move forward because you don’t want it and I’m going to deny thousands of people use and utilization of an enhanced park’ — or you’re not going to do that. So you’re going to run into it with Ernie.”

Pointing to his opposition to Tucker as county auditor that has put him at odds with Page, he said, “County Executive — it could be Joe Blow — they are not going to go along with that. So there’s going to be a tension. And if it spills over into other things then so be it, but I’m not going to go along with that. And the other council members who have, shame on them. I just can’t do it.

“And out of that comes some tension, but out of that tension has come some really good things.”

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