The St. Louis County Council defeated several bills sponsored by one of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s harshest critics -- highlighting the ongoing friction between Stenger and Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City.
Typically, the council approves most of the bills that come before it. Any disagreements are usually worked out before meetings – and it’s fairly rare for the council to reject bills outright.
But on Tuesday, the council killed several of Erby’s bills. They included:
- $24,000 to check out the heating and air conditioning at the county health department
- $375,000 to support a health initiative in Pagedale.
Erby was the only council member to vote for these measures.
The Pagedale initiative would have placed personnel from the county health department and the county human services department at a facility developed by Beyond Housing and owned by the 24:1 Community Land Trust. Beyond Housing is a 501(c)3 organization that develops low-income housing throughout the St. Louis region. (Chris Krehmeyer, Beyond Housing's executive director, is listed as the president of the 24:1 Community Land Trust according to Missouri's Secretary of State's office.)
The county signed a seven-year lease on the facility last year, and the bill in question would have supported staffing and programming. But Erby told reporters that Stenger and his administration gave the project's backers a hostile reception.
“And the people in the meeting were scrutinized about who, why – why did it come out?” Erby said. “Not anything to do with the services or if they were needed in the community. But who approached you for this facility? What was the conversation? It was like an interrogation.”
Erby said she was questioned about being on the board of Beyond Housing. She brushed aside the idea that it was a conflict of interest, adding that two council members – Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, and Mike O’Mara, D-Florssiant – belong to labor unions that could be affected through county council action.
“That had never come up before,” said Erby, referring to her membership on the Beyond Housing board. “But I don’t think that’s any different than we have Mike O’Mara and Pat Dolan are union reps or they’re pretty high up. ... They’re in on any legislation or decisions that we make involving union contracts.”
O’Mara wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting. Dolan – a member of the local sprinklers’ union -- denied any conflict between his job and his role on the council.
For his part, Stenger described Erby’s bills as wastes of taxpayer money.
For instance, he said, the county could have arranged for a HVAC contractor to look at the health department's systems without cost. And, he added, the Pagedale initiative set off numerous red flags.
“There were a lot of things that were not revealed to the council when we voted on this matter,” Stenger said. “No. 1: Councilwoman Erby is also on the board of Beyond Housing, which is a complete conflict of interest to begin with. She voted on a matter wherein she is a board member of an organization that was receiving an extraordinary benefit from St. Louis County. And that was not the only thing that was misrepresented.”
Stenger also questioned whether the initiative was needed, especially when he said a $20 million health facility in Berkeley is underused.
“The previous health department advised the council through the county executive’s office that there was a need for this facility,” Stenger said. “I’ve had members of my staff contact existing health department personnel. And the existing health department personnel say there was never even a calculation of need made. There was never an e-mail that set anything forth. There was never a communication of any kind that set forth any kind of need.”
He also brushed aside the idea that Erby’s place on the Beyond Housing board of directors was comparable to O’Mara's or Dolan’s labor union jobs.
“Never where direct money is going to any of the organizations where they work. Never,” Stenger said. “That just doesn’t happen. And if it did, they would recuse themselves. This is not even comparable. Please note: This is a situation where St. Louis County was going to give St. Louis County taxpayer money directly to Beyond Housing. And Hazel Erby is on the board of Beyond Housing.”
Krehmeyer, Beyond Housing's executive director, said he was disappointed with the council’s decision. But he said his organization is “going to continue to try to move forward and work with Mr. Stenger and his team.”
“I really don’t have any interest in inflaming the situation,” Krehmeyer said. “We’ve been committed to this community for many years. And we’re going to continue to stay committed. Again, we want a partnership with the county. We need one. And we’re going to continue to work to that end.”
Erby supported former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley in last year’s Democratic primary. She then joined other local African-American officials in endorsing Stenger’s Republican opponent, former state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood.
When asked if this amounted to “payback” for her support of Stream, Erby first replied: “I don’t know.” She said it was odd that the council acted so swiftly to kill her bills, especially since she wanted to hold the HVAC diagnosis bill so she could alert the contractor about the council’s objections.
“Why would you deny the community those services because you’re trying to get back at someone?" Erby said. "That doesn’t make sense.”
While emphasizing that the council is responsible for passing or defeating legislation, Stenger said this situation has little to do with political retribution.
“Once again, I think Councilwoman Erby is bringing forth bills from the previous administration that made no sense for taxpayers,” he said.