St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is facing his most potentially adversarial County Council since he took office two years ago.
But the Democratic, countywide official is optimistic that he can work together with the seven-member legislative body – and avoid some of the pitfalls that bedeviled his predecessor.
Unlike, say, Congress or the Missouri General Assembly, the divides on the St. Louis County Council have relatively little to do with political party. Rather, factions of the council tend to fall into two categories: council members who are considered allies of the county executive and those who aren’t.
After council members Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack and Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County were sworn into office this week, at least five council members aren’t considered Stenger allies. This bipartisan coalition consists of Walton Gray, Trakas, Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country.
“We’ll have to communicate, try to talk through it and have some type of compromise,” said Walton Gray, a former state lawmaker. “I’ve been told that it’s going to be different now and we’re going to be able to get some things that maybe we couldn’t have in the past.”
While most bills that come before the council pass without opposition, there’s occasionally dissension. In the past couple of years, Stenger-backed proposals to institute regulations for rental housing and place standards on municipal police departments evoked passionate opposition. So this new coalition could make it very difficult, if not impossible, for Stenger to pass an agenda item perceived as controversial.
“They’re not going to be able to ramrod legislation through like in the past,” Harder said. “And we’re going to be more deliberative when it comes to understanding initiatives and ordinances and things that come to our attention.”
The reality on the council is a big reversal of fortune for Erby. When Stenger took office, a big majority of Democrats and Republicans on the Council aligned with him. And that meant Erby, who backed Republican Rick Stream in the 2014 county executive’s race, was often the lone dissenting voice and vote on the council. (That changed over time when Harder and Wasinger starting voting with Erby on bills that didn’t have unanimous support.)
“I have a lot of faith,” Erby said. “I knew that citizens deserved better. And I knew that would change. Just be patient, it would change.”
Erby said “the citizens have lost out” because of how the council previously operated. She said there was also lingering animosity from some of her Democratic colleagues over 2014 legislation aimed at getting more minorities and women working on county projects.
“I think that the public will see a difference now on the council – and I’m really excited about that. I can’t explain how excited I am,” Erby said. “What I see right now is more council members who have their constituents at heart, who will do things that they feel is in the best interest of the people they represent.”
Stenger expresses optimism
Beyond the practical issues of getting broader agenda items past the finish lines, there are also political overtones to the new reality on the council.
When he was a member of the County Council, Stenger was part of a bipartisan coalition that clashed with then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. Some of these battles became extremely contentious – and may have contributed to Dooley's loss of political support in his ultimately unsuccessful Democratic primary against Stenger.
For his part, though, Stenger said he’s not anticipating similar skirmishes with the current council – or that he’ll put forward controversial legislation.
“I think what we’re going to see for the next two years is legislation that means a great deal to St. Louis County [residents] – and particularly each district,” said Stenger, who will face re-election in 2018. “We have seven council people, seven districts. And we are going to conduct the business of St. Louis County.”
Stenger went on to say that “this is a much different administration than the Dooley administration.” He said he’s already had good conversations with council members – including newcomers like Walton Gray and Trakas.
“I think the key is we’re not going to react. We’re going to be proactive,” Stenger said. “We will build consensus where we can build consensus. And if it were impossible to build that consensus for a particular bill, it just wouldn’t be brought. We’ll do our best to do whatever is in the best interest of St. Louis Countians. And when it comes to particular districts, I don’t think we’re going to have many issues. On broader policy issues, where we have legislation that touches on broader policy issues, we’ll do our very best to build consensus where we can.
“I’m optimistic,” he added. “From my interactions thus far with the new council, I’m really excited. And I genuinely mean that. I’m excited for the opportunities. We’ve got new people with new ideas.”
Council Chairman Sam Page has often aligned with Stenger since he was elected in 2014. He predicted that over the next year or two there would be “more conversations, more communication, more efforts to find consensus and the middle ground on the issues that are difficult.”
“I would hope they wouldn’t stop talking when we get to four votes,” said Page, referring to the number needed to pass a bill through the council. “[I hope] we continue to try and incorporate minority opinions into the legislation that moves forward, especially the hot topics. The solution to that is just to slow things down a little bit. And if we’ve got a bill that’s appearing to become controversial, then we can wait a week or two or three – and let people talk about it a little more.”
“That’s the first step toward finding a middle ground is having a conversation,” he added.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum