Race For Recorder of Deeds Has Taken Unpredictable Twists And Turns

Jul 30, 2014

Jennifer Florida, Sharon Carpenter and Edward McFowland

The St. Louis recorder of deeds' race has been nothing if not odd. A few months ago, the race was a low-key, low-profile and low-interest affair. Now, the contest is rife with allegations of mismanagement as well as a nepotism-fueled game of musical chairs.

The recorder of deeds is in charge of recording all property transactions and issuing marriage licenses as well as birth and death records.

Sharon Carpenter held the post for 34 years before stepping down in July. Carpenter stepped down after reports surfaced that she had hired her great-nephew to do office work for several summers for a total of $12,000.

"I hired him. I did it," Carpenter said in an interview. "I believed I was acting within the law. But with a misunderstanding of the law, it doesn't make a difference."

Carpenter said she believed the Missouri law against nepotism didn't cover great-nephews. The Missouri Constitution states:

Any public officer or employee in this state who by virtue of his office or employment names or appoints to public office or employment any relative within the fourth degree, by consanguinity or affinity, shall thereby forfeit his office or employment.

Carpenter said she interpreted the "within" to mean that great-nephews wouldn't be covered, but the Missouri Ethics Commission makes it clear that her interpretation was incorrect.

The penalty for nepotism is forfeiting office. So Carpenter did, before an investigation by the circuit attorney took place. But she is still running to reclaim her seat.

After serving for more than three decades, it could leave many asking why, exactly, she would want to run for office again. She says it comes down to history.

"There are some things I've just begun because the technology just got here," she said. Carpenter, a former history teacher, touted her "little projects," which include preserving colonial records. "Three months ago, we were just able to get those devices and are now able to scan those [colonial documents]."

Carpenter says she has a fascination with history and historical documents, which she says sets her apart from her opponents.

But her primary opponent, Edward McFowland, says that does not make her fit for office. The payments to Carpenter's great-nephew surfaced because of McFowland, 4th Ward committeeman.

"If you resign because you violated your oath of office, then you shouldn't be allowed to participate and run for that office," McFowland said. "I don't know why the city took a different view on that, but no, that doesn't sit right with me at all."

McFowland has campaigned mostly on a platform of transparency. In addition to nepotism, he has lobbed numerous allegations at Carpenter, including smoking in public buildings and her office and not showing up for work.

But as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, the accusations have gone both ways.

Carpenter also fought back in a letter to Democratic colleagues, accusing McFowland of receiving a felony conviction for failure to pay child support and having been sued several times for not paying personal property taxes. “I’m no saint,” McFowland said on Friday. “I was unemployed for 18 months. It is kind of hard to pay everything when you don’t have a job.”

McFowland and Carpenter are also joined on the primary ballot by Jimmie Matthews, a perennial city candidate.

When Carpenter stepped down in early July, Mayor Francis Slay appointed Alderman Jennifer Florida, D-15th Ward, to the post.

Last Friday, Florida turned in enough signatures from St. Louis registered voters to allow her to run as an independent in the November general election.

It's something of an odd situation. Both Florida and Carpenter are allies of Slay, and both of them say they are friends with each other.

"I don't like it that we're running against each other," Carpenter said, laughing. "She has been a friend and an ally. But we will probably be debating differences of opinion, and not personal because I think she's an honorable person."

McFowland has expressed displeasure with Florida's appointment.

"It does not make sense for Recorder Florida to step down as alderwoman to be recorder for a mere five months," McFowland has said. "It doesn't sit right with me" that she would run as an independent candidate.

Most of the time in city politics, the real race is over after the Democratic primary. But with Florida running as an independent, the campaign leading into the November election is likely to be a spirited.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Despite the allegations and accusations, the candidates are in agreement on one thing. In July, Carpenter signed four same-sex marriage licenses in a direct challenge to Missouri's ban. She said it was one of the things of which she is most proud during her 34-year tenure. And McFowland, for his part, praised the decision.

"I have nothing but praise for Sharon signing her name to those four licenses and can only imagine the joy she must have had in doing so. She and I have many differences, but on this there is no disagreement. It was the right thing to do."

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel