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Government, Politics & Issues

Stenger under fire as St. George's dissolution causes new split in the ranks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2011 - Leaders of the successful effort to disincorporate St. George denounced the St. Louis County Council's choice for a trustee to facilitate the final stages of dissolving the tiny municipality.

The reason? The trustee was among the leaders of the drive: Bob Burns.

"We wanted some disinterested party," said former Mayor Carmen Wilkerson, another disincorporation leader, in an interview late Tuesday after the council meeting.

She contended that Burns is unqualified and used his Democratic ties to win the trustee job. Burns and County Council Chairman Steve Stenger disagree and note that Burns will be paid only a dollar for his services.

On Nov. 8, citizens of St. George overwhelmingly voted to dissolve and become part of unincorporated south St. Louis County.

As a result of the vote, the county needed to select a trustee to oversee the disposition of the municipality's assets, which include about $350,000 in the bank, a small building that served as City Hall and a small park.

Stenger, D-Affton and the councilman for the area that includes St. George, recommended that Burns serve as trustee. A divided council approved the move on Tuesday.

Burns -- a former aide to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, and a former member of the Affton School Board -- was among the leaders with Wilkerson of the campaign to disincorporate the town. His wife, Dianne Burns, serves as an alderwoman.

Wilkinson was among several other disincorporation leaders who told the council Tuesday night that Burns was the wrong person for the job. Wilkerson said Burns' "antagonistic and confrontational relationships with several of his neighbors" made passing the initiative more challenging."

Burns' next-door neighbor is Mary Jo Fitzpatrick, a former St. George mayor who was among the leaders of the opposition.

"Each time Mr. Burns defied our pleas to work quietly in the background, public meetings turned into screaming matches and voters who thought that St. George should be disincorporated were alienated," Wilkerson said. "Bob Burns' constant attempts to use our cause to fuel his decades-long vendettas against neighbors almost derailed our efforts several times throughout this process."

Wilkerson asserted that the appointment wasn't being made on "merit or competence" but "cronyism." She also said if Burns is selected, those who campaigned for dissolution would lose credibility with their neighbors.

Instead, she suggested the council choose somebody who wasn't from St. George -- such as former city attorney Paul Martin or city treasurer Ron Cipolla.

Wilkerson said she thought a lawyer or accountant would be preferable to Burns, who was neither.

Ultimately, the council voted to appoint Burns. Three councilmembers -- including Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and County, and Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Chesterfield -- abstained.

After the vote, Burns said he had no idea what had led to the schism with his former allies.

"I hold no malice or grudge against anybody," Burns said. "I'm going to do it for the greater good. That's why they said that the trustee could be paid, but I refused pay. It's only to give back something to the community and for the greater good."

Asked about the contention that the trustee shouldn't be from St. George, Burns replied that he and his wife have been active in the community for decades. That, he said, gives him a good sense of what's needed to wind down the town's business.

"We want a positive transition," Burns said. "And that's why Steve Stenger wanted somebody with history and someone he knows can work with everybody to make it a better place."

He added that Lathrop & Gage attorney and former county councilman Jeff Wagener will serve as the lawyer for the trustee. He also said Martin and Cipolla will be a part of the transition.

Stenger Involved In Testy Exchange

The comment period also featured a combative exchange between Brian Wilkerson, the husband of Carmen Wilkerson, and Stenger. Brian Wilkerson urged the council not to let the November vote devolve into "just another act of cronyism, political hackery and politics in action."

Stenger replied by defending Burns' appointment as valid.

"It's a legitimate appointment, he is a qualified person," said Stenger (right). "I moved for his appointment as trustee because I know of his track record in the community. And some of the things that you've said tonight -– I'm sorry, sir -– simply aren't true."

"They are true, we fought the battle," Brian Wilkerson responded. "We were in the trenches."

"I listened to what you had to say, certainly, and you're entitled to do that," Stenger said. "But I want to respond. I moved for the appointment because I believe he's a qualified person. His duties are in no ways going to ingratiate him in any way. It is truly a public service. I believe the legislation said that he's going to receive a whopping $1 per year."

(Click here to see a portion of the interchange between Brian Wilkerson and Stenger.)

Jo Mannies, Beacon political reporter, contributed some information for this article.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers local and state government and politics. To reach him, contact Beacon issues and politics editor Susan Hegger.

Jason Rosenbaum special to the Beacon

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