The few long-time regulars at St. Louis County Council meetings may be longing for the legislative body's customary 10-minute meetings after the past few weeks.
That’s because in recent weeks, the meetings have turned into lengthy – and often bitterly hostile – clashes between St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and most of the council. But it's more than just legislative melodrama; a coalition of five council members (out of seven) have managed to block quite a bit of Dooley’s agenda.
They've delayed or defeated bills issuing bonds for county services, ordering a forensic audit in the wake of embezzlement at the health department and developing a public relations strategy for the Children’s Services Fund.
Last Tuesday, the council effectively killed bills supported by Dooley to broaden minority participation for county contracts. (Dooley responded by signing an executive order implementing the bills the council defeated, though the council may pass differing legislation in the next couple of weeks.)
In essence, Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, and two of his Democratic allies have banded together with the council’s two Republicans. This coalition, which has been in place for a while, has become more energized as the primary battle between Dooley and Stenger intensifies.
Stenger said the schism demonstrates that the council “disagrees vehemently with the policies of this administration.”
“I can tell you that there’s been some play in the media about the council disagreeing with the county executive because it’s an election year,” Stenger said. “And that is simply not the case.”
These divisions could continue long after the primary election. After all, even if Dooley wins re-election, the council coalition – which some of his staff have labeled “The Council of No” – is likely to remain in place. Here's why:
- If Dooley wins his primary and re-election, Stenger will have two years left in his council term.
- Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, and Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, will also return to the council next year. Neither is considered an ally of Dooley.
- Departing Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, is likely to be replaced by another Republican. Chances are, that Republican won't be a supporter of Dooley.
- Both Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, and his Republican challenger Jennifer Bird have been critical of Dooley.
Of course, that doesn't take into account what happens in the Democratic-leaning 1st and 2nd Districts. Democrat Wesley Bell could upend Councilwoman Hazel Erby, a University City Democrat who is Dooley's only ally left on the council. And assuming he can defeat Bridgeton Councilman Robert Saettele this August, it remains to be seen where former state Rep. Sam Page -- a Creve Coeur native who received the Democratic nomination for the 2nd District special election -- aligns on the council.
For his part, Dooley dismissed the prospect of a longstanding schism, noting that the council typically approves most of its agenda items without disagreement, including zoning changes, road repairs and license renewals.
The failure of some his priorities recently is related to “people positioning themselves when they normally wouldn’t be positioning themselves,” Dooley said. After the Aug. 5 primary, “all of this foolishness will go away.”
"Ninety-nine percent of what we do … There are no discussions," Dooley said. "It’s just right down the line. This is the political season. It’s the silly season. Everybody’s trying to jockey and position themselves to something."
“That’s something that’s going to last beyond this election,” Stenger said. “It’s going to last into September, October — it’s going to go forward because we’re in disagreement over those issues. Now if he wants to reach a consensus with the council, I think the council is very much open to that. But he’s going to have to let go of some of these policies that really lead to and represent and demonstrate financial mismanagement.”
Dolan said some agenda items that Dooley is emphasizing – such as the minority participation legislation and the forensic audit – are election-related. The first-term councilman went on to say if both he and Dooley remain in office, “there’s a very good chance that things like this are probably not going to come up.”
“If those kinds of things keep coming up, yeah, we are going to have a problem,” Dolan said. “But these are things that come up before an election. Those things didn’t come up last year or two years ago. So we didn’t have that problem."
"It’s very obvious even to the casual political observer,” he added. “I don’t begrudge him. That’s the way things are done and if that’s what you do, that’s what you do.”
North county mayors mobilize
The minority participation legislation has spurred some north St. Louis County municipal officials into action. Some – including leaders of the “24:1” communities within the Normandy School District – have attended council meetings to speak out for Erby's bills.
Most of those municipalities have majority African-American populations, and their political leaders say that passing the bills could put their residents to work.
“You wanted to bring jobs here. But you don’t want to have a diverse workforce organization to build,” said Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy. “This country was built on diversity. So I don’t see why we have a problem. St. Louis city has done it. Kansas City has done it. We all live in north county, in St. Louis County. There are qualified contractors of all sorts that should be put on every single job that St. Louis County signs a contract for.”
Vinita Park Mayor James McGee noted that he had been “born on a plantation in Mississippi,” and added that the fact the council couldn't pass Erby’s minority participation bills “reminded him of a plantation.”
“All we’re asking that you do is give us a chance,” McGee said. “Even when God gave 100 percent, he asked for 10 percent back. St. Louis County is not giving anything back. And I’m ashamed of that.”
Stenger has emphasized that the debate over the minority participation bills is different from, say, the forensic audit or the bonding plan. Council members generally agree with Erby’s legislation, he said. The sticking point revolves around how big a contract should be before a contractor must undergo federally approved apprenticeship training.
But many of those north county leaders supported Dooley's executive order implementing Erby's bill.
During a press conference announcing his executive order, another reporter asked why Dooley was taking an action that was “very favorable to stimulating his base.” That was, perhaps, a reference to how Dooley will need strong African-American turnout, especially from north county, to withstand Stenger’s challenge. He was also asked if the push for the minority participation goals would help get him votes.
Dooley’s response? “What I’m about is putting people to work and leveling the playing field,” he said. “That’s what we’re for.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.