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Government, Politics & Issues

Numerous contests for mayor among suburban offices up for grabs next Tuesday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Although Proposition P – or the “Arch tax” – is the best-known issue on Tuesday’s ballot, it’s really part of a crowd.

Dozens of contests are on St. Louis County ballots, including school board and fire district elections, proposed bond issues, and battles for city council and aldermanic seats – and mayor.

Some of the county’s bigger cities – including Clayton, Chesterfield and Fenton – feature scrambles to replace departing mayors. Meanwhile, leaders of several other municipalities, including Normandy and Valley Park, are facing election challengers.

With rare exceptions, such as Florissant (with no mayor’s race), most of the region’s municipal mayors work part time, earn only small stipends and lack the power or influence of the region’s best-known full-time mayoral post, that of  St. Louis.

(St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay faces nominal opposition on April 2 in his historic bid for a fourth four-year term and has run a very low-key campaign for the general election.)

Most of the county’s municipalities are run by city managers or administrators.

Even so, local mayors usually chair their city council or aldermanic meetings and work closely with the city managers. The mayors often are their municipality's “public face,’’ promoting economic and civic improvements.

While each municipality with a high-profile mayoral contest next Tuesday has its own set of unique issues, there are a couple of common threads:

  • Strained government budgets because of the last four years’ economic downturn and, in many communities, declines in real estate values;
  • Efforts to re-energize and attract more commercial development.

The latter is especially vexing in Fenton, which is still coping from the loss of the Chrysler auto plants.
Below is the first of a two-day sampling of some of St. Louis County’s most spirited mayoral campaigns:

Chesterfield

Two members of the west St. Louis County city are vying to replace incumbent Mayor Bruce Geiger, who decided against seeking another term. Councilman Matt Segal is squaring off against Councilman Bob Nation in the contest to lead one of the county’s largest municipalities.

Segal is a vice president at Berkadia, an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway. He was first elected to a seat on the Chesterfield City Council in 2009 to represent the eastern part of Chesterfield.

In an interview, Segal said that his background in strategic and financial planning gives him a unique perspective in local government. His key priorities include keeping the city’s traffic under control. He also expressed a desire to establish partnerships with the city’s schools, nonprofits and faith-based institutions.

He’s touted the support of most the city’s council, as well as the backing of both Geiger and former Chesterfield Mayor John Nations.

Before winning a seat on Chesterfield’s city council in 2007, Nation worked as an airline pilot. He said his focus in office would be increasing the city’s transparency, continuing with “excellent” services to the residents and discontinuing “public financing of private development.”

He also said that he would consider rolling back taxes if the city government has a surplus.

“Year in and year out, we have excess fund reserves over and above our stated fund reserve policies,” Nation said. “It seems as though we’ve looked for ways to spend those excess fund reserves. And I would favor in the future is if these excess fund reserves continue is to modestly roll back some of the rates in tax.”

Outlet malls currently under construction in the Chesterfield Valley is a particular flashpoint between the two candidates. The council approved a community improvement district tax – or CID – last year for infrastructure improvements around one of the facilities.

Nation criticized the proposal as an inappropriate giveaway to a developer. But Segal touted the outlet malls as ways to attract people and tax revenue.

“People will come here, they’ll spend $350 a shopping trip,” Segal said. “Some of them will stay at hotels. They’ll go to the restaurants. They will also go to the other shops that are around the area. And competition’s a good thing.”

Clayton

As the county seat, Clayton long has had the image of a sophisticated, pricey community filled with high-rises, attractive older homes and a respected school district. But even Clayton’s city government recently has seen money problems and deficit spending, which are top issues for the three candidates for mayor.

The three – two current aldermen and one former member – are vigorously competing to succeed departing two-term Mayor Linda Goldstein, who can’t seek re-election because of term limits.

The contenders, in ballot order, are:

  •  Harold Sanger, 66, a former three-term alderman and current chairman of Clayton’s Plan Commission and Architectural Review Board. He also has served on various boards, including Washington University’s Entrepreneurial Board.
  • Michelle Harris, 57, an alderman since 2006 and active in various civic groups, including as a past member of the Shaw Park Ice Rink Task Force, Housing Task Force, Parks and Recreation Commission;
  • Alex Berger III, 63, an alderman for the last 10 years. He also is a member of the Clayton Education Foundation, Wilson School and the St. Louis Community College Foundation Board.

All three have extensive business backgrounds, including as corporate executives, business owners and consultants.
All three focus primarily on the same issues: protecting Clayton’s neighborhoods, bolstering downtown businesses and balancing the city’s budget. The latter has sparked the biggest disagreement.

Since 2010, Clayton’s Board of Aldermen has opted to dip extensively into the city’s hefty reserves – which initially totaled $23 million – to cover costs to maintain the staff and city’s services. The reserves have declined, but more than half remain.

All three candidates agree that the city must get back to a balanced budget.

Berger notes that he voted against approving the budgets because “I didn’t think we were taking pro-active steps to curtail our expenses and to prioritize our expenses.”

Harris says it made sense to protect services and staffs for a few years as the economy rebounded, and notes that the city’s reserves had been unusually large. “Why else do you have a reserve?” she asked.

Harris, Sanger and Berger cite the plan now in place by the city manager to have the budget balanced by 2015.

Sanger says he supports that plan, but believes it should have been set up sooner. “I’m an advocate of a healthy reserve,’’ he said.

Sanger says he also wants to focus on ways to “make Clayton more walkable and bikeable.” 

He and Harris advocate encouraging more downtown housing and apartments, particularly for young professionals. 

Berger suggests exploring possible cooperative agreements with the school district that could improve efficiencies and save money, a move that Harris has proposed as well.

All three, who know each other well, have praised the civility of their contest.

Next: the mayoral contests in Fenton, Normandy and Valley Park.

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