During his first St. Louis County Council meeting as chief executive, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger saw three picks for top positions within his administration approved without difficulty.
But at least one council member raised concerns about Stenger’s pick for the county’s parks director.
Stenger is in the process of overhauling the county's leadership after 11 years under former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. Stenger picked former Republican Councilman Greg Quinn as the county’s revenue director; Peter Krane as county counselor; and former St. Louis Parks director Gary Bess to head the county parks department.
All three selections received unanimous approval from the county council. But Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, questioned Stenger’s decision to pick Bess after two his former employees — deputy parks commissioner Joseph Vacca and former chief park ranger Dan Stritzel — pleaded guilty to a complicated embezzlement scheme. (Read more about that here.)
That situation occurred around the same time that Dooley faced immense criticism for how Edward Mueth, a former county health department employee, stole several million dollars by setting up a fake company to repair laptops. Mueth committed suicide before any charges could be brought against him.
While Erby said Bess isn’t necessarily unqualified for the county parks post, she added it was “strange” he was selected when Stenger “crucified” former Health Department director Dolores Gunn over the Mueth episode.
“I believe in giving anybody a chance,” Erby said on Monday. “It just seems strange to me, though, that County Executive Stenger would make such an issue with former County Executive Dooley regarding the health department and issues that came up with the health department. He called it a scandal and all kinds of crazy terms. And then he hires someone who was in the same predicament in St. Louis.”
Stenger said Bess handled his situation much differently than Gunn. For one thing, Stenger said, Bess reported the situation to federal authorities as soon as he could. And he also said Bess “immediately took responsibility for what happened in the city.”
“He vowed to correct it and make things better and said that it wouldn’t happen again,” Stenger said. “I’ll juxtapose that with the situation in the county. Dolores Gunn has yet to take responsibility for what happened. The then-county executive failed to take responsibility for what happened. No responsibility was taken. No one punished.”
“The only thing the county executive had to say about Dr. Gunn was that Dr. Gunn was an extraordinary person or was outstanding as a health director,” he added.
Stenger emphasized that he wasn’t saying “that embezzlement is acceptable under any set of circumstances.” It’s one reason, he said, that he’s undertaking a “top-to-bottom audit of county government."
“But it was certainly something that happened. And responsibility was taken in terms of Gary Bess,” Stenger said. “No responsibility was ever taken in the case of Dolores Gunn. In fact, she left this job without ever taking responsibility for what had happened. And frankly, it was a failure of leadership at her level and it was a failure of leadership at the county executive’s level.”
For his part, Bess said Vacca and Stritzel “were probably some of our most trusted employees.” He said numerous audits didn’t pick up that the scheme was going on.
He said the pair’s theft taught him “you have to disperse the responsibility for purchasing and payment of bills.”
“You need different people who receive supplies and equipment that’s already ordered,” Bess said. “So there’s segregation among duties.”
Stenger says merger not a big priority
Meanwhile, Stenger said he plans to send a county staffer to Better Together’s town hall meeting on how to change the region’s police departments. And he said that he wants to meet with the group’s leaders about what their “end goals” are.”
That group has been studying different aspects of county government over the last year. The data could be used to push for a merger of sorts between St. Louis and St. Louis County.
“Certainly, I know that they’re conducting studies,” Stenger said. “But ultimately, I want to understand their motives better and their intentions better. If the intentions were to have a statewide vote, I’m adamantly opposed. If that’s the end goal there, I don’t want to see that.”
Stenger said during the campaign that he wanted to see a firm proposal before stating whether he supports or opposes a merger. But he said on Tuesday that “right now I can tell you that that issue, with respect to everything else we have going on, is not on my radar.”
“It is very low on my priority list,” Stenger said. “Now, if people want to talk about consolidation of services and want to talk about those issues – I think that is something we can talk about now. But if we’re talking about consolidation of entities and governmental bodies – that is not something I’m interested in having a conversation about right now.”