St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley signed an executive order on Wednesday establishing minority participation goals for county contracts. His move comes a day after the St. Louis County Council rejected bills on the issue.
The situation showcases the escalating hostility between Dooley and a county council increasingly aligned with Councilman Steve Stenger, the Affton Democrat who is challenging the incumbent this August.
At issue are Councilwoman Hazel Erby’s bills establishing workforce goals for women, minorities and county residents for county contracts. Dooley strongly backed the legislation, contending it would make county work more available to people who were traditionally shut out.
But when Erby’s bills came up for a vote on Tuesday, they failed because another council member wouldn’t provide a second. On Wednesday, Dooley announced he was signing an executive order implementing Erby’s legislation.
Those provisions include:
- Creating an Office of Diversity Programs, a measure rejected in ordinance form earlier this month.
- Establishing minority, female and St. Louis County resident goals for contracts over $1 million.
- Setting apprenticeship training guidelines for all construction projects over $2 million.
“This executive order sets a standard for who we are and how we conduct business in St. Louis County,” Dooley said. “This reflects our value system. I fully expect those on the council in opposition to our efforts to take steps to weaken or even [repeal] this order completely. But they will have to explain why they want to continue to disenfranchise minorities and women. We are moving forward in St. Louis County.”
Erby, D-University City, said on Wednesday that she “can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t support this diversity and fairness.”
“It’s about fairness, equality. There’s no reason why women and minorities can’t get their fair share,” Erby said.
The key sticking point was how much a county contract should be before a contractor must undergo federally-approved apprenticeship training. Some – such as Councilman Mike O’Mara – have said that training would ensure that county jobs are done properly and safely. He's introduced competing legislation that sets the apprentice training threshold lower than Erby’s legislation.
But Dooley and Erby have argued that apprenticeship training -- which is primarily done by unions -- is too expensive for some minority and female businesses. They say having a low apprenticeship training threshold puts minority and female businesses entities at a disadvantage when bidding for work.
“This does not exclude the unions from bidding on" contracts over $2 million, Dooley said. “It doesn’t exclude anybody. It just opens the door for others to come into the process.”
Dooley said he was confident that executive order would withstand any legal challenge. But the county charter states executive orders “shall be uniform as the various departmental functions will permit and which shall not be inconsistent with any ordinance.” By raising the apprenticeship threshold to $2 million, the executive order appears to alter an ordinance signed into law into 2012.
“I believe this is the right thing to do. Again, that’s the call that I made that I’m going to stand by,” Dooley said. “We’re going to do this. Now, if somebody wants to legally challenge, I’ll deal with it at this particular time. The process right now is immediately, when I sign the papers in my office, this will be a legal document for St. Louis County until otherwise determined.”
The order comes as Dooley is engaged in an increasingly acrimonious primary battle with Stenger. He’s also been dealing with a council that can block his legislation, since most of the council members are aligned with Stenger.
In a telephone interview, Stenger said the council plans to pass O'Mara's bills on the subject next week. If there are any differences between the executive order and the ordinance that eventually passes, he said the ordinance will take precedence.
"There really isn’t much reaction at all," Stenger said. "I think that the county executive passed an executive order that mirrors the language of Mike O’Mara’s inclusion bill. There’s really not that much of a story there, other than I think there’s some politics at play in that he wanted to be the first one to pass a piece of legislation or pass some document that embodies what we’ve been attempting to pass on the council now for a few weeks. And we just haven’t been able to last week because Mike O’Mara was out of town."
Tuesday, Stenger questioned why Dooley had decided to bring the issue up several months before an election instead of earlier in his administration. He added on Wednesday: "The county executive could have been just doing this on his own for 10 years without an executive order or an ordinance. But he didn’t. That’s why this is fairly obvious why this is happening now."
“I think that it’s long overdue. It should have been done by him a long time ago,” Stenger said on Tuesday. “There was an executive order that contained many of these same things that really went unenforced by this administration since 2007. We haven’t heard anything about it. And then suddenly, 60 days before an election, he’s brought this issue up. I’ll leave that to your speculation.”
For his part, Dooley said that 2007 executive order was enforced on a project-to-project basis. And when asked why he was signing executive order in the midst of a campaign, Dooley said, “We’re doing it right before an election because of what happened last night.”
“That is no excuse for that,” Dooley said. “St. Louis County is the largest county in this state by population. We’re not asking for anything different from St. Louis City or Kansas City. It should be a routine thing, but yet it wasn’t. I can’t understand that.”