(Updated 9:08 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 20)
Rita Days, St. Louis County’s Democratic director of elections, says she’s been removed from office at the behest of new County Executive Steve Stenger.
The county’s Board of Election Commissioners voted Tuesday to remove Days as of Friday. She says she is to be replaced by Eric Fey, now the executive assistant to County Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.
Although she remains on the payroll a few more days, Days says her computer access already has been cut off.
Stenger denies that he had any hand in Days' removal.
Days and the Election Board staff have been under fire for several years for some elections mishaps, most notably ballot mix-ups in the August 2012 primary in the 87th state House district that forced the board to hold a new election.
The board once again came under scrutiny late last year after Stenger’s narrow general election victory over Republican Rick Stream.
Days said in a telephone interview that Tuesday’s action wasn’t a surprise. The board’s two Democratic members – Richard Kellett and Ann Pluemer – took her to lunch on Jan. 9 and told her “my services are no longer needed,’’ Days said.
She added that the commissioners told her that Stenger wanted her removal. “It had everything to do with that,’’ Days said.
Stenger says played no role in Days' ouster
Stenger later flatly denied that he engineered Days’ ouster. He said that was up to the election commissioners, who are appointed by the governor.
“That is solely the decision of that board,” Stenger said. “And it is not a decision that I make.”
While praising Days’ public service, Stenger did allude to the problems that befell the board – including the 87th District redo election and the shortage of paper ballots.
“I respect her service to the public," he said. "At the same time, there’s no secret that there were issues.”
Days is a former state legislator, and has held the job for four years. She was the choice of former County Executive Charlie Dooley, who lost to Stenger in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.
Days contends governor sought to save her job
The county’s Election Board is technically under the jurisdiction of the governor, who appoints the four board members and designates the officers. However, the county pays the board’s expenses and the county executive traditionally has behind-the-scenes influence – especially if the executive and the governor are of the same party.
The board is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats. Their employees are split between Democrats and Republicans, with one of each party holding the same job. There are two directors of elections, for example, one Democrat and one Republican. The person of the same party of the governor – in this case, Days, and soon, Fey – is in charge.
"It's my understanding that the governor was working hard on my behalf,'' Days said. So far, Nixon's staff has not commented.
Days is among several top county officials who have lost their jobs since Stenger took office Jan. 1.
Still, Days called her removal “very disappointing,’’ adding that she is among the few African-Americans to hold major county posts. She said she hoped some of her staff, notably assistant Robyn Wilks, will be allowed to stay on.
"World" of experience
Before he started working for Dolan, Fey worked for the election board for several years. He has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has observed elections in other countries.
“So it’s something near and dear to my heart,” Fey said. “And I hope to improve election administration in St. Louis County.”
One thing he wants to figure out right away is why the county ran out of paper ballots on Nov. 4, the most recent countywide election. He said that was “very troubling and I think that’s a very basic thing that needs to be addressed.”
“I don’t know if it’s just better communication amongst the directors and the staff,” Fey said. “I hope to find that out in the days to come. Frankly, voters expect there to be enough ballots at their polling place and the election board needs to do that.”
But not everybody is convinced Fey's appointment as Democratic director is the right one.
State senator cites lack of African-Americans in key posts
During a press conference in Jefferson City, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal told reporters she was bothered by how the election board's staff is overseen by Democratic and Republican election directors who are both white, even though about a quarter of the county's population is African-American.
“The environment that we are in right now is one of distrust of state government, of local government,” said Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. “What we are experiencing is racial chaos. There are people who I have seen who I represent who do not trust government whatsoever.”
Asked about Chappelle-Nadal’s comments, Fey said: “I can say this: I can’t change the color of skin.”
“But what I can do is promise all the voters of St. Louis County – including the African-American voters – that I’ll do my absolute utmost to ensure that they have equal access to voting in St. Louis County,” Fey said. “That includes adequate paper ballots, adequate polling places, adequate absentee procedures and so on. That’s all I can promise them.”