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Dooley takes offense at Stenger comments; demands apology

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2011 - St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley has upped the ante in his accelerating feud with County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, a fellow Democrat at odds with Dooley over proposed park closings.

Several days after their testy exchange at a budgetary meeting, Dooley issued a release Thursday demanding that Stenger apologize for publicly making a perceived insult about the chief executive's educational background.

Dooley was reacting to Stenger's comments earlier Thursday on KMOX's Mark Reardon Show. Stenger, a lawyer, noted that he had been a certified public accountant for nearly 18 years and worked as a state and local tax specialist.

Reardon then asked, "What's Charlie Dooley's background specific to the budget?"

"I don't think there's an educational background," Stenger said. "I think Charlie graduated from high school. I don't think he has any specialized training in accounting or anything like that." [Click here to hear the rest of Reardon's interview with Stenger.]

Dooley then put out a statement calling Stenger's comments "insulting and insensitive." He added "in trying to insult me, Mr. Stenger demeaned and insulted the people of St. Louis County -- many of whom do not have a college degree.

"I am confident and secure in my own ability. I have been elected county-wide three times," Dooley said in a statement. "I have nine years experience preparing and implementing balanced budgets. St. Louis County has a Triple A credit rating -- the best you can possibly have. My outrage is not for me -- it is for the thousands of decent, hard working men and women without a college education who make valuable contributions and lead this community and this country every day.

"What Mr. Stenger also fails to recognize is he has insulted a whole group of individuals who, without a college degree, worked and scraped and saved to put their children through school -- and they didn't do it so those children could then turn around and insult the very people who made their success possible," Dooley added. "Mr. Stenger owes the people of St. Louis County an apology."

Stenger -- who is up for re-election next year -- is considered a possible rival to Dooley's re-election effort in 2014.

In an interview late Thursday, Stenger he was surprised by Dooley's reaction and contended that he was attempting to "make a distraction."

Stenger, who said Dooley's educational background has "never entered into my calculus," said his own parents were high school graduates.

Stenger added that Dooley was initially attacking him by suggesting his position on the council didn't give him budgetary expertise, even though he has experience as a CPA. Stenger was alluded to Dooley's comment at Tuesdasy's budget hearing when Dooley said "being the chairman of the county council does not give you the knowledge of the county budget in any one year."

Said Stenger: "My education, I've always believed, doesn't make me better than anyone or anything. But if we were talking about a medical issue and we had a physician, we'd say 'oh, well the physician would know this.' "

"It just so happens I've been a CPA for 18 years since 1993," Stenger continued. "I have worked on extremely large budgets. I was a state and local tax specialist over at Ernst and Young. I had some very large clients that I dealt with on very large issues with budgets that are frankly bigger than the county. So I do have experience in dealing with this matters. And it doesn't make me better than anyone. But I think it gives me some insight into the issues that we face."

Stenger said that Dooley actually is "angry" that his budget is not going to be approved.

As of now, at least six council members -- Democrats and Republicans -- indicated they would not vote for Dooley's budget. The lone holdout is Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, an Overland Democrat who had a terse exchange of her own Tuesday with Stenger.

"I think he's very angry about that," Stenger said. "Frankly, I think he's a bit frightened at this point. And I think he is grasping at straws in an attempt to divert attention from these facts. ... He's sort of attacking me here."

"But I still feel bad for him. I mean, I really truly do. My emotions - and you asked me how I feel about it - I feel bad for him, because this is not the issue. The issue is what are we going to do to stop these parks from being closed? I've been adamant and vocal in my opposition, and he's making it personal." Stenger added "I don't think what I did warrants an apology because I didn't do anything."

Asked about what's next for the budget process after the past week's events, Stenger noted that "the budget will not be passed, we will then go month-to-month with one-twelfth of the budget from last year."

Stenger was referring to wording in the St. Louis County charter that will mean spending will continue at the same rate as under the current 2011 budget, on a month-to-month basis, until the county adopts a new budget.

"That does not include cuts to the parks," Stenger said. "Frankly, I think that may just be the best thing that could happen. We'll able to take a wait-and-see approach. We're cautiously optimistic as to the future. And we think that's going to be just fine going forward."

In addition to his outspokenness on the parks issue, Stenger criticized Dooley for a earlier proposal to raise property taxes to pay for employee raises. A majority of the council opposed that idea as well.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state government and politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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