After previously working to reach some sort of concord with St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s office, the St. Louis County Municipal League has come out against a proposal that would set standards for municipal police agencies.
Earlier this fall, Stenger publicized a plan that would prompt municipal police departments to adhere to training, hiring and operational standards. He said the standards would facilitate better law enforcement coverage across the county. (Click here to read more about the proposal.)
A number of city governments — as well as the St. Louis County Municipal League — criticized it. Still, Municipal League Executive Director Pat Kelly said several weeks ago he was willing to work with Stenger on the proposal.
That changed on Tuesday during a meeting of the council’s committee of the whole.
Kelly joined municipal elected officials, police chiefs and municipal attorneys in expressing strong opposition to the police-standards proposal. While Kelly said meetings with Stenger’s office were productive, he ultimately became convinced that the county executive would go ahead without enough changes to satisfy his organization.
“We just don’t believe St. Louis County has the authority to oversee regulations within municipal government,” Kelly said. “And we believe it’s a slippery slope in regulations and then taking over the duties of local government.”
(Stenger has cited the county's charter allowing his government to regulate health as authority to pursue his plan.)
Some municipal officials during the committee hearing and the council’s regular hearing bristled at some of the standards’ enforcement mechanisms. For instance: If a city’s police department doesn’t comply with these standards, that agency wouldn’t be allowed to operate in St. Louis County. It could either contract with a municipal police department that meets the standards or with the St. Louis County Police Department. Stenger’s plan would also give the county executive’s office and the county council the ability to approve or disapprove contracts between municipalities.
Some municipal leaders — including Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider — said those types of stipulations were entering a sphere that is typically the domain of municipalities.
“We’re just asking you to respect our sovereignty, to respect our opinion,” Schneider said. “We’ve reached out to the county executive and to your body asking you to include us in that discussion. And I think we’ll all come to a very good conclusion if we do that. But if we do it separately, then we might fall separately.”
Jeff Wagener — who serves as Stenger’s policy director — said the county executive’s office has met with municipal officials over the past few weeks and “is still open to talking to people” about changing the legislation.
“This has been a very open process,” Wagener said. “And again, we’re introducing the bill today. The bill, at the earliest, can’t get [initially passed] until next week. And at the very earliest can’t get passed until the following week. So there are weeks to go in this legislative process that people can still give input.”
But Wagener said that if municipal officials “are not going to give input because they know they’re going to file a lawsuit and they don’t want to have a tacit understanding by anyone that they are in somehow in favor of the bill, that doesn’t help anybody.”
Kelly said that if the council passes the proposal, cities would likely file a lawsuit against the county. Indeed, Leland Curtis — whose office supplies city managers to municipalities across the county — strongly hinted that there would be litigation if the proposal passed.
“I’ve read the bill as drafted, and in all candor, I find it Draconian and it is a dangerous overreach by the county,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s council meeting brought about a spirited exchange between Stenger and state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University.
The two Democrats have been at odds over several issues, including handling of radioactive waste in the West Lake Landfill, Stenger’s decision not to pursue a minimum wage hike and the police-standards legislation. Stenger and Chappelle-Nadal also haven’t seen eye-to-eye politically, as the two-term state senator endorsed Republican Rick Stream’s county executive bid last year.
During the council’s public forum session, Chappelle-Nadal listed those aforementioned disagreements — and then brought up “the lack of the relationship between you and I.”
“I am not asking you to like me,” she said. “I am not asking you to respond to every single need of my constituents, who are also your constituents. But we have to work together. We do. We have to be responsive to the people who have a lot of concerns and a lot of interest. And I frankly feel that you have not been responsive to many of the critical needs of our constituency that we share.”
“And I would disagree with you vehemently,” interjected Stenger. “And if you’re coming here to try to act like we don’t have a relationship, it’s largely because you have Tweeted profanity about me on social media and everywhere you can. It’s very difficult to have a relationship when someone does that.”
A few moment later, Chappelle-Nadal asked Stenger if he was done speaking. Stenger then replied: “Are you done?”
“No,” Chappelle-Nadal replied. “I will never be done when there is injustice in my community! If you want to get down, we can get down tonight.”
“We can get down!” responded Stenger, who alluded to how Chappelle-Nadal was challenging U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, for his seat next year. “You said you wanted to rumble, then rumble.”
“No – you’re the one who disrespected me,” she said.
Chappelle-Nadal then asked Stenger to come near the speaker’s podium. Stenger declined. And after engaging in crosstalk, the two eventually ended their exchange and the council heard from more speakers.