County Council flexes muscles, overrides 5 Stenger vetoes | St. Louis Public Radio

County Council flexes muscles, overrides 5 Stenger vetoes

May 29, 2018

St. Louis County voters will likely weigh in this summer on the ongoing power struggle between the St. Louis County Council and County Executive Steve Stenger.

The council voted 6-1 today to override five of his vetoes. Three of the measures are proposed changes to the county Charter that will be placed on the August ballot.

One of the changes would set campaign-donation limits of $2,600 for candidates for countywide office or the council. All three have provisions that would increase the council’s powers.

Council Chairman Sam Page says voters will be asked to resolve several issues. “Should the County Council be able to participate in budgetary decisions?” he said. “Should they be able to have reasonable legal advice, accurate information to make good decisions?”

The ballot proposals would:

  • Allow the council to hire its own lawyer, instead of relying on the county counselor, who is part of the county executive’s administration.
  • Allow council members to do contract work for other governmental entities, which is now barred by the charter. The provision is in response to Councilman Ernie Trakas’ troubles, because he does contract legal work for school districts. The proposal would not affect his current situation, which could result in him being forced off the council.
  • Set the campaign-donation limits, while also creating an online portal so the public could view county spending. The provision also would allow the council to exercise power over ongoing spending that it does not have now.

The St. Louis County Council, with the empty chair designated for County Executive Steve Stenger, who does not always attend council meetings.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

Councilman Mark Harder, a Republican from Ballwin, says the proposals are largely in response to council frustration over Stenger’s lack of cooperation.

“We’re here because of a lack of leadership,’’ Harder said.

But Stenger says he is exercising his leadership by taking action – such as vetoes – on measures that he believes are improper or illegal.

Stenger contends that the council is improperly trying to usurp his powers. He plans to campaign against the proposals.

“I think it’s really important that we have checks and balances in government. And this amendment eliminates those checks.”

Stenger said he had vetoed the ballot proposals because one, in particular, “gives the council unlimited spending authority.”

And that spending is not aimed at helping average county residents, Stenger said. “They want to hire more lawyers. They want to hire additional staff members.”

The council also overrode Stenger’s veto of a bill that would allow it to periodically hire an outside lawyer. The fifth override concerned a measure that would increase the pay for county nurses who deal with prisoners at the St. Louis County Justice Center.

The council wants to finance those raises – which would affect up to 60 nurses – with money from the Proposition P sales-tax increase, which was designed to provide more funding for law enforcement. Voters approved the increase last year.

Stenger supports the pay increases, but says the money should come from the county health department. He disputes Page’s contention that the department is in financial trouble.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies