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Dooley-Corrigan debate follows predictable script

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 15, 2010 - The defining moment in Thursday night's debate between the candidates for St. Louis County executive came about halfway through, with a question about their vision for the county and what they would do first.

Republican Bill Corrigan, the challenger in the race, answered as he had responded to many other questions, by holding up copies of position papers his campaign has put together and issued on a wide variety of topics.

"This is about plans," he said. "This is about ideas and visions...

"No reasonable person can have read these plans and not have come to the conclusion that there are very good ideas in there."

Then he stopped for a second and said sheepishly, "I forgot the question."

When it was Charlie Dooley's turn to answer, the incumbent Democrat recounted his accomplishments since he took office in 2003 -- the River City casino, the north county records center, the Highway 141 extension -- then mirrored Corrigan's emphasis on paper. But the yellow legal pad he held up was mostly blank.

"My opponent is good at wishful thinking," Dooley said. "Look at my record for the last seven years. We have accomplished something. We have moved this county forward."

Later, he said: "Leadership means making difficult decisions in difficult times. It's not holding up a piece of paper. ... It's insulting. Every time you speak, you have a four-point plan, a six-point plan, an eight-point plan. It's not real."

That contrast -- plans and position papers versus deeds and accomplishments -- was the typical pattern through 90 minutes of questions and answers before a capacity crowd of more than 200 people at the Brentwood School District Conference Center.

The questions from the audience and three local professors -- Ken Warren of Saint Louis University and Todd Swanstrom and Nancy Kinney of the University of Missouri-St. Louis -- covered the topics that have dominated the sometimes testy campaign: trash districts, city-county merger, economic development, casinos and more.

Throughout, Dooley's frequent refrain was that things in the county are "simply outstanding" and there's no reason for voters to change the man at the top.

"St. Louis County is not broke," he said in his opening statement. "Let's not fix something that's not broke."

Corrigan's diagnosis was quite different. Decrying a lack of leadership in the county, he said it's time for a change. "That's what this election is about," he said. "It's about the future. It's about who you trust."

He concluded: "This is about leadership. We're at a crossroads. We're at a decision point. Who do you want to lead this county?"

Here's a recap of their stands on the issues:

City-County Merger

Dooley noted that the long-debated question would have to be put to a vote of the people and that anyone in a leadership position would have to consider ways to eliminate duplication of services, to save money. Even though polls have shown strong public opposition, the topic is brought up frequently, so it has to be discussed.

Urging people to "look at the big picture," he said bringing the city into the county could make the area more competitive and more attractive to businesses. "I've been talking about this for 20, 30, 40 years," he said, "and we'll probably be talking about this for another 20, 30 40 years."

Corrigan says he opposes any merger but does favor collaboration with the city in areas where it could bring greater efficiencies. He noted past votes that have indicated strong opposition and said that he is against the county having to take on unfunded pensions liabilities and other debt from the city that would result in higher taxes.

"I'm opposed to it because of the economic disaster it would cause St. Louis County," Corrigan said.

Job Creation

"I don't want to just talk about jobs, jobs, jobs," Corrigan said. "I want to talk about solutions and plans. And about how we can move this region forward. I want to remake St. Louis County into a national leader in entrepreneurship."

Dooley responded: "Government doesn't create jobs. Business does. What government does is to create an environment where businesses can grow." Noting the county's business incubators, he added: "If you have an idea, St. Louis County is the place to be."

Trash Districts

Dooley said that with the new trash districting plan, residents of unincorporated areas of the county are saving money. Fewer trash trucks also means less wear and tear on the streets. He also cited the increased amount of yard waste diverted from landfills.

"It works. It's environmentally friendly. It's the right thing to do at the right time," he said.

Corrigan noted that the county faces a court judgment of millions of dollars because of a ruling that it did not follow the law in giving proper notice before ending old contracts.

Economic Development

Corrigan said he has worked with businesses and non-profit groups and would put that experience to work.

"I have a lifetime of leadership and accomplishment," he said, "and I look forward to bringing that skill set to serve the residents of the county to the best of my ability."

Dooley pointed to efforts to establish a China hub in the region and to the successful vote to support MetroLink, which he said was vital to growing businesses in the county. "My opponent talks about what he will do," he said. "Let's talk about what Charlie Dooley has done."

North County Casino

Dooley repeated his opposition to the proposed casino near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, saying that the people of the area don't want it and it is not an environmentally sound project. He also raised the question of saturation of the market.

"I believe we have enough casinos," he said. "That's not long-term planning for economic development."

Corrigan said he is still neutral on the question, saying there are compelling arguments on both sides. He deferred to the Missouri Gaming Commission, which is currently studying where the state's remaining casino license should go. He criticized Dooley for spending money on a poll to see how people felt on the issue.

"You don't stick your hand in the wind," he said. "You don't need a government-paid poll to know what you want to do."

Relationships With Municipalities

Dooley noted that he has experience in the government of Northwoods and once served as president of the St. Louis County Municipal League, so he knows what local concerns are. "Can we get the potholes fixed? Can we get the dog who is barking to stop barking?"

Corrigan acknowledged that if the county were being designed from the start, it would not have the 91 municipalities it has today, adding: "But people in our county like their local control."


Corrigan mentioned several times the county's 50-year-old crime lab, saying that its antiquated equipment hampers efforts to solve crimes and get people off the street before they graduate to more serious offenses.

Dooley noted that the county police department patrols only one-third of the county, with the rest covered by municipal departments.

The debate was convened by the League of Women Voters and the Holden Public Policy Forum. A third candidate, Libertarian Theo Brown Sr., was scheduled to take part but notified organizers 30 minutes before the event that he was ill and could not attend.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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