St. Louis ballot measure would eliminate recorder of deeds, put money toward police body cameras | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis ballot measure would eliminate recorder of deeds, put money toward police body cameras

Mar 30, 2017

St. Louis’ Recorder of Deeds office is in the crosshairs in Tuesday’s election, when voters will have to decide whether to eliminate the agency, which maintains public records, and put any money saved toward body cameras for police.

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Even if 60 percent of voters choose to get rid of the office via Proposition A, it may not stand up to a legal or constitutional challenge. Allies of the current recorder of deeds, Sharon Carpenter, question whether it’s legal to merge two different issues into one ballot proposal, and Carpenter says she’ll go to court if the proposition passes.

Proposition A shifts the elected office’s duties to the city assessor, which the mayor appoints.

Carpenter said she suspects her office is being targeted by critics — which includes Republican political donor Rex Sinquefield — with a broader objective of eventually eliminating all of the city’s “county offices’’ in order to make it easier for the city to merge with St. Louis County.

Proposition backers say they do have the law on their side. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, points to a provision in state law, in place since 2002, that allows the city to combine two “county’’ offices.

Carpenter believes critics see her as “the weak link.” She has held the post for 37 years, with the exception of a brief period in 2014 when she had to step down because she admitted she had hired a relative — a violation of state law. Voters returned her to the job a few months later.

Indeed, the effort was prompted in part by a damaging 2016 audit of Carpenter’s operation, according to Nasheed,  who is among the leaders of the Proposition A campaign.

But Nasheed said her chief motivation is to raise some money for body cameras for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, which has a few under a pilot program but not enough for all of its officers. The initial purchase of body cameras is estimated to cost several million dollars a year.

“If we want to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community, this is the best way to do it,” she said.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis
Credit Courtesy of Nasheed's office

The Recorder of Deeds office has a budget of $2.8 million a year, with about 80 percent going toward salaries. But Carpenter said eliminating the office — which retains all official records for land transactions, births, marriages and other things in the city — will put only about $100,000 a year toward body cameras, because state law mandates that her 40-person staff would have to be given other city jobs.

Another issue around the proposition is GOP political donor Rex Sinquefield’s bankrolling in favor of it. He’s been the prime donor to Great St. Louis Inc., which since March 20 has given $132,000 to pro-Prop A group Make Saint Louis Safe.

Sinquefield spokesman Travis H. Brown said the financier is backing the ballot measure “because he loves St. Louis.” Plus, Brown said, eliminating the office would help streamline city government.

“This has nothing to do with the recorder of deeds office,” Brown said. “We need body cameras. What are the top three issues in the city right now? Crime, crime, crime.” 

Nasheed said Sinquefield got involved at her behest, adding that she’s opposed his efforts to get rid of the city’s earnings tax and approached his staff about Proposition A as a way to improve efficiency in city government.

“This is a common cause, a common purpose and a common issue that we’re working together on,’’ Nasheed said.

Carpenter contends Sinquefield’s involvement is proof that the proposition is tied to the city-county merger effort, because Sinquefield long has been a supporter of such a move.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies