To some of his critics, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s strained relations with many members of the County Council is payback.
During his last years as the 6th District councilman, it wasn’t unusual for Stenger to publicly joust with then-Executive Charlie Dooley at council meetings. Stenger won their 2014 confrontation at the polls.
But now, others see a broader conflict over power and who wields it. Stenger and the council continue to battle over a variety of issues as this year’s November elections loom. Their feud has gone on for over a year.
Former County Executive Gene McNary, a Republican who held the job for 15 years, has been watching with interest.
“They both have exceeded their authority in some cases,” McNary contended. He believes that Stenger has focused too much on the county auditor post, which is filled by the council. But McNary also asserts that the council may have exceeded its powers with some of its broad changes in the county budget.
McNary notes that the St. Louis County charter gives the county executive lots of power – far more than the mayor of St. Louis. Unlike the city’s Board of Aldermen, The seven-person county council is usually the low-key sidekick.
“It’s a check and imbalance,” McNary explained. “The council is a check and the county executive really has the authority to run the government.”
But Council Chairman Sam Page says it’s time to change that dynamic, Page is leading a four-vote faction that often blocks Stenger on a variety of issues. As a result, even some routine matters are taking more time to resolve.
It’s particularly noteworthy that Page and most of his allies are Democrats. So is Stenger.
In fact, Stenger’s most reliable council supporters consist of only one Democrat – Patrick Dolan – and two Republicans: Mark Harder and Colleen Wasinger.
Stenger also hasn’t been reluctant to take on the council in public.
Council accuses Stenger of withholding information
At this week’s council meeting, the county executive sparred with Council Vice Chair Hazel Erby over who was to blame for a pay dispute involving county nurses who care for prisoners in the jail. The tension overshadowed the fact that Stenger and Erby agreed on the solution.
And last summer, Stenger went after Page when the chairman persuaded the council to back off its initial support for a proposed ice rink complex at Creve Coeur Park.
Stenger sarcastically accused Page of using lame excuses for his own switch. “I know the dog ate your homework and the sun was in your eyes, so you had a hard time.”
Page said the change of heart on the rink was in response to public concerns. But on a broader level, the episode illustrates the growing rift between Stenger and the council.
In an interview, Page contends that Stenger has too often tried to push through faulty legislation without providing the council with the facts.
“We’ve been burned a couple times in passing legislation that wasn’t completely understood. The council members all feel very strongly that we need to understand what’s before us and to make informed decisions.”
Page contended that Stenger, and his staff, are often reluctant to provide information – even when the council formally requests it.
Stenger, for his part, contends that Page is trying to exert power that the council does not have.
Their disputes are particularly noteworthy because Stenger had supported Page when he first ran for election in 2014 to replace Kathleen Burkett, who had died in office.
Page says their relationship soured when he began to ask questions. “The best way to have a good relationship with the county executive is to agree with him,” Page said. “If you disagree with him, it can get stormy.”
Erby’s assessment is harsher. The University City Democrat said that Dooley’s administration was “always open and willing to share information with us.”
In contrast, she accuses Stenger and his staff of being downright disrespectful. “It’s an insult, and yes, they are combative at times,” Erby said. “We were told we did not matter and we were no different from a department head, which is not true.”
Erby has been a longstanding Stenger critic, and backed his Republican rival – former legislator Rick Stream – in 2014. This time around, Erby says there’s no way she will support Stenger’s re-election.
Stenger denies rumors that he may encourage another Democrat to challenge Erby in her own re-election bid this year. Among other things, Stenger took note of how his former support for Page panned out.
In any case, Stenger contends that too much is being made of his tensions with the council, and denies that it impacts county operations.
“I think you find us disagreeing on a very small group of issues,” Stenger said.
But those disagreements have been major ones. In recent months, the council has overturned a pension increase for County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch that Stenger had supported. The council also overhauled Stenger’s proposed new county budget.
In turn, Stenger issued an executive order that blocked money the council hoped to use to beef up its auditing staff. Stenger has contended that the new auditor, Mark Tucker, is unqualified and should be fired.
Fights over auditor, budget
The council has been divided over Tucker, who Page supports. Page maintains that Tucker’s experience assisting lawmakers in Jefferson City is something the council needs.
Page also has been pushing for a new position of “legislative director,’’ to provide assistance to the council. Some council members agree with Stenger that such a post is not in the charter and would require voter approval.
The council filed a lawsuit last fall that, in effect, challenges Stenger’s power to block spending on the auditor’s office. Stenger also is refusing to pay the council’s outside legal bills.
Republican Councilman Mark Harder agrees with Stenger on the auditor, but says the budget battle highlighted the council’s frustration with his administration’s lack of cooperation.
“It’s been like Kabuki theater, with the numbers. It’s like, ‘this has a reserve over here, and this has a deficit,’ ” Harder said, referring to the various departments’ finances.
Harder was among six council members who voted to overhaul Stenger’s proposed budget. Harder says he believed that budget plan needed to be cut to preserve the county’s financial reserves.
“His budget director kept telling us ‘the day of reckoning on this budget is coming,’ ” Harder said. “So we went ahead and made the cuts we needed to make.”
Harder added that Stenger’s executive order that trimmed the council’s own budget might be a tactical mistake, if the county executive wants to improve relations.
“It doesn’t build bridges, it burns them,” Harder said.
Stenger said that it was only fair that the council share in the financial pain it was imposing on most of county government.
The council’s budget action also exemplified Dolan’s status as the council’s odd man out. He had complained at the meeting where the revisions were unveiled that he’d gotten them just an hour earlier. Dolan suspected that he was left out of the discussions because he’s Stenger ally.
"It used to be more of a pleasure to be here,” Dolan said in an interview. “Right now, I’m basically left out of the conversation, even general conversation.”
Republican Colleen Wasinger, one of the council veterans, said the various disputes highlight Page’s chief objective: “I think his ultimate goal, setting aside the personal conflicts with the county executive, is to make the legislative branch more relevant in the process of running the county on a daily basis.”
Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray says that means more control over county spending. “We want to know where the money is going, and how it is being used.”
The discord has been a learning experience for new Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican from south St. Louis County who holds the 6th District post that once had been occupied by Stenger.
Trakas often sides with Page, which has at times put the councilman at odds with his fellow Republican members. Trakas asserts that Stenger might be involved in a recall effort aimed at Trakas; the county executive says he’s staying out of it.
In any case, Stenger says he won’t back down from his views of how the county should be run – even if that continues to put him at odds with the council.
“Our charter is every clear. The County Executive is granted the executive powers of the county,” Stenger said. “As part of those powers, the County Executive controls the rate of spending, and he hires and fires within the merit system.”
He added, “What I’m focused on is that we run a professional government for the people of St. Louis County and its taxpayers. That’s my chief concern. Whether I get along with the County Council, that’s second to that.”
Tensions in county government are likely to heighten even more in the coming months. The voters will decide in November who fills the county executive post, and four of the council seats.
Harder is preparing for more disputes, observing wryly: “An election year brings out a whole different dynamic to governance.”
Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies