UPDATED: Page hopes court will force Stenger to hire additional auditors

County executive says he’s on the side of the taxpayers

Sam Page

Sam Page

By Gloria Lloyd

County Council Chairman Sam Page hopes to take County Executive Steve Stenger to court to force him to hire more auditors in the county auditor’s office.

The council was set to weigh a resolution Tuesday — after the Call went to press — calling for “judicial relief” in the long-simmering fight with Stenger over the auditor’s office, which the resolution formally terms a “dispute.” The resolution also declares that due to a conflict of interest, County Counselor Peter Krane, who is appointed by Stenger, has to hire a separate law firm, Bick & Kistner, to represent the council in the legal battle.

The auditor, typically a low-profile county office, has taken center stage since the council fired former Auditor David Makarewicz in January and hired former state worker Mark Tucker to replace him on a 4-2-1 split vote. Immediately, Stenger and other council members questioned if Tucker had the accounting experience the county Charter requires for the job, and county Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch launched an investigation into Tucker’s qualifications.

The fact that Tucker is working by himself in the usual two-auditor office is “impairing the auditor’s ability to perform its functions,” council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, wrote in the resolution. The deputy auditor, who received two council votes for the top job herself, left for another county job soon after Tucker took office.

County Chief of Operations Glenn Powers has said he and Stenger are limiting new hires through a hiring “slushie” that’s not a freeze but still closely analyzes whether new positions are needed. And hiring more auditors beyond the typical two is not necessary, he said.

Trakas said he would most likely vote for the resolution if Page advanced it Tuesday.

Although the resolution was Page’s idea, most of the council likely agrees that the county needs more auditors and that the council needs to do whatever it takes to fund them, the councilman added.

“I think this just goes to show the level of concern and frustration on the part of the council,” Trakas said. “The resolution is borne out of the failure of the county executive to fully staff the auditor’s office, that’s pretty plain. As a result of that is an attendant inability of the auditor to function at full capacity or full effectiveness, which in turn compromises the whole concept of separation of powers, because it renders, in essence, the council unable to have its auditor function truly independently. So that, in as succinct a way as possible, is the theory behind any potential litigation.”

If the council sues Stenger, Krane would typically decide whether it was a conflict of interest for him to serve as attorney for Stenger and the council. The decision to hire an independent counsel would also be up to him. But Page’s resolution declares a conflict of interest and mandates that Krane hire Clayton-based Bick & Kistner to represent the council.

Stenger has long contended that the county wouldn’t need to hire more auditors if Tucker could conduct audits himself. As the council acknowledges, Tucker has not yet completed any audits.

“It’s very clear that the four council members who support him want to have an additional auditor because the auditor they hired can’t audit,” Stenger said. “He doesn’t know how. One of their auditors can’t audit, and it’s going to cost county taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per year in addition to the $85,000-per-year salary of the auditor who can’t audit.”

The resolution calls for Stenger and Krane to release the council’s dedicated funds so they can pay legal invoices from Bick & Kistner to sue Stenger.

“This is really just a boondoggle, a boondoggle for taxpayers, and I’m on the side of the taxpayers here,” Stenger said. “They have an auditor who can’t audit, so they want to hire a third auditor to do his job. If they want to sue the county because of that, they can sue the county. I can tell you I am not a proponent of them getting funding for a lawsuit so they can sue the county.”

But the council’s intent with the effort to hire more auditors is to bring the county up to the auditing standards set by similarly sized counties across the state, Page said.

“There is widespread panic that we might be successful in establishing a functioning auditor’s office in St. Louis County,” Page said. “The absolute root of this is that some members on the County Council are against transparency and accountability and don’t want a functioning auditor’s office, and the county executive shares that goal. So we are exploring all options, including judicial intervention.”