Switch to county manager fails at Charter Commission; South County cities supported it

Pictured above: The 2019 St. Louis County Charter Commission convenes for its first meeting Feb. 21. Photo by Erin Achenbach.

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

St. Louis County will continue to have a strong county-executive form of government for the likely future after a Charter Commission proposal to switch to a county manager died in discussion.

The county manager idea has been discussed throughout the Charter Commission’s nine months of meetings to discuss changes to the county Charter. The effort to change the county’s form of government to one with a county manager was largely spearheaded by commission member and former 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, who has also suggested making county elections nonpartisan.

However, the proposal failed to advance Oct. 2 in the commission’s first vote on the issue, dividing the panel 6-6. It would have needed nine votes to be drafted. It was the first major vote the Charter has taken on the many changes to the Charter it has considered this year.

Sunset Hills Mayor Pat Fribis and Crestwood Mayor Grant Mabie both spoke publicly at a Commission meeting in August in support of making the switch to a county manager, just a little over a month before former County Executive Steve Stenger reported to Yankton, South Dakota Sept. 23 for a four-year prison term after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges in May. Stenger resigned as county executive in April.

Fribis noted that she was an alderman for eight years and has been mayor nearly four years, and she helped move the city to a city-administrator form of government in 2016, which she feels is succeeding under City Administrator Eric Sterman. Fribis got a direct contrast of the two systems by seeing how Sunset Hills functioned without a city administrator while she was an alderman and how it functions with one while she is mayor, which she sees as “run professionally and with more continuity,” she said at the Aug. 21 commission meeting: “All the Board of Aldermen is told the same things, and he communicates very well with them, and our city is fiscally very responsible.”

Mabie told the commission that guardrails needed to be put into place to prevent another administration similar to Stenger’s.

“Setting aside the criminality of the Steve Stenger administration, the guardrails are not currently in place to prevent someone with similar ethical challenges from going down a similar dark path,” said Mabie. “The current Charter, thus far, has too much power in the county executive’s office and too little in the County Council.”

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

Under the proposal for a county manager, the county executive post could have become largely ceremonial, with a county manager overseeing 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, much like how a city administrator runs day-to-day operations in cities.

The commission has 14 members, seven appointed by the county executive and one appointed by each of the County Council members. By rules established by the commission itself, in order for a proposal to move forward to be drafted into a final proposal, it must receive nine out of the 14 votes. Any final proposals also have to be approved by at least nine members to be placed on the ballot.

The vote on the county manager proposal was split 6-6, with commissioners Andrea Jackson-Jennings, Bob Grant, Courtney Allen Curtis, Sarah Crosley, Tony Weaver and Jim Layton voting against the plan.

Jackson-Jennings and Grant were both appointed to the commission by Stenger. Layton was appointed to the commission by County Executive Sam Page. Curtis was appointed by former Councilwoman Hazel Erby. Crosley was appointed to the commission by Councilwoman Lisa Clancy. Weaver was appointed by Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray.

In favor of advancing the proposal were Wasinger, Christopher Grahn-Howard, former County Executive Gene McNary, Greg Quinn, Reggie Jones and Maxine Schumacher. Commissioners Nathaniel Griffin, the mayor of Wellston, and William Speiler were absent.

McNary, Quinn and Jones were all appointed to the commission by Stenger. Wasinger was appointed by 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, and Schumacher was appointed by 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas.

Prior to the vote to move the proposal forward, or not, Maplewood City Councilwoman Eleanor Pardini spoke during the public forum against employing a county manager.

“I feel strongly that it would be important to keep the county executive in a position that is voted on by the people and is accountable to the people every few years,” Pardini said.

Pardini said Maplewood has a city manager but felt it concentrates “too much power in the hands of an appointed official… I think the hiring of that person and changing of the guard can be really difficult when you’re dealing with a council rather than a vote of the people.”

Grant, former deputy county counselor, said that he felt the proposal was a reaction to the failed Stenger administration rather than in the best interest of the county.

“We’re in this mood that we’ve got to change something because we had a bad county executive… That’s the wrong motivation to change county government. It shouldn’t be a reaction to one individual. I firmly believe had we not had the problem with that county executive (Stenger), we wouldn’t be having this discussion about a county manager,” Grant said. “I think this county manager idea, as well as it might be working in a lot of places, is before this group because of a reaction to that county executive, and I think that’s the wrong motivation.”

Former Clayton Mayor Ben Uchitelle said that while switching to a county manager might be reactionary, the long-term benefits were worth considering, noting large counties that use a manager are “prospering” while the county is losing population.

“So, do I think the… county manager form of government will solve those problems? Not necessarily. But it will be one person… who would be a professional. So even if the Steve Stenger situation hadn’t come along, it’s time for our county to take a good look: can it be run more professionally and in a better way with a county manager form of government,” Uchitelle said.

“I’m sorry for the county,” said Wasinger after the vote failed.

Trakas, who was also at the Oct. 2 meeting and who supports switching to a county manager-form of government in addition to countywide nonpartisan elections, said that he was disappointed but not surprised that the measure didn’t pass.

“I knew from early on that there was little chance that frankly this commission and the way it was constituted was going to, I didn’t believe, undertake any serious effort to change the Charter. That no vote is in the face of overwhelming support for the idea from three different public forums they held,” said Trakas in an interview with The Call. “It’s (county manager) a way to address the greatest flaw in the Charter, and that is its executive-centeredness… I don’t think it was just reactionary (to Stenger), I think it was people realizing that the system itself is flawed, the Charter itself is flawed and needs to be changed.”