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STL County Council shoots down proposal to add subcontractors to conflict of interest law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The St. Louis County Council effectively killed St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley’s proposal to add subcontractors to the county’s conflict of interest statutes.

That move came Tuesday night, after the council gave initial approval to another ordinance mandating background checks for nominees to the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners.

In recent weeks, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of articles examining a subcontract for heating and air conditioning construction for St. Louis County’s new crime lab. The paper reported that the county awarded a contract to ICS Construction Service, which then awarded a subcontract to SM Mechanical LLC for $3.7 million worth of heating and air conditioning work. Greg Sansone – a former member of the police board who has since resigned -- is an owner of SM Mechanical LLC.

St. Louis County Counselor Pat Redington told the Post-Dispatch that the move didn’t violate the county charter because it was the ICS Construction Service – not St. Louis County – awarding the subcontract. Still, Dooley proposed amending the county’s conflict of interest policy, adding it’s “very important that as we go forward that there be no confusion about what it is we’re trying to accomplish.”

But when an ordinance to implement that proposal came to the council on Tuesday, it did not receive a “second” from the council. That effectively killed the measure.

The ordinance – sponsored by Council Chairwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett, D-Overland – would have stipulated that “no officer or employee of the county, whether elected or appointed, shall in any manner whatsoever be interested in or receive any benefit from the profits of emoluments of any contract with a person or entity seeking to obtain goods and services in connection with a contract between that person or entity and St. Louis County.”

It also would have allowed the council to waive the provision of the section “if, on full public disclosure of all pertinent facts to the council by each such officer or employee, the council shall determine that the transaction does not violate the public interest.”

Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, told reporters that he would not have voted for the ordinance; he maintained that the county charter already bars the practice that led to the awarding of the SM Mechanical contract.

Stenger strongly disputed Redington’s assertion that SM Mechanical's subcontract didn’t violate the county charter, which states that “no officer or employee of the county, whether elected or appointed, shall in any manner whatsoever be interested in or receive any benefit from the profits or emoluments of any contract, job, work or service for the county.” 

“Whether it’s a subcontract or a general contract or any contract, a police commissioner is not under any circumstances to have a contract that involves county money,” Stenger said. “And this contract absolutely, positively involved county money. That’s where the general contractor received its money and then passed it onto the subcontractor. So it is an absolute violation of the charter."

Stenger went onto say that “to pass a bill after the fact that essentially basically dilutes the charter is just something I’m not interested in doing.”

“It weakens the force of the charter,” Stenger said. “The charter is extremely clear and says this classification, this class of people are not to receive contracts that involve county money. They’re just not. Directly or indirectly.”

Burkett said she was not surprised that the ordinance failed, adding other members of the council “were not going to be supportive of it.” She also said that while it was not a “bad idea” to pursue the legislation, she said that it could produce unintended consequences.

“We have a lot of people on boards and commissions that serve in a capacity – like mechanical code, plumbing and electrical and so on. And that would really throw them in a bind. So we probably should have thought a little more about it,” she said.

But Burkett said she disagreed with the idea that the ordinance “weakened” the existing charter.

“If you read the charter, it does specifically say no member of any board or any commission should profit,” she said. “But the problem with that is subcontractors are not contracting with the county. They are contracting with the general contractor. And so a lot of times, we – and when I say 'we,' I mean council members – we’re not even aware you may have a conflict of interest. We don’t know that.”

For his part, Dooley called the council’s decision “unfortunate.”

“What we were trying to do is strengthen what we already have on the books and make it crystal clear what we’re looking for,” Dooley said. “And they did just the opposite with the qualifications of the police commission. Again, I think they missed the mark.”

Initial approval for police board background checks

Dooley was alluding to Councilman Mike O’Mara ordinance to require a police board nominee to undergo a specific background check. The Florissant Democrat’s ordinance received initial approval by the council and will receive a final vote next week.

Under the proposal, a nominee to the police board’s background check would include:

  • A name search in the Highway Patrol’s record management system.
  • A search through Missouri’s CaseNet for open criminal cases.
  • A search through the Missouri Department of Revenue for driver’s license status.
  • A credit check.
  • A check to determine whether a nominee has paid state and county taxes.

O’Mara noted that the proposed background check was the same process that local and state law enforcement candidates receive.  Stenger said O’Mara’s proposal was an “excellent idea.”
“This is one of the very most important commissions that we have in St. Louis County,” Stenger said. “It deals directly with the safety of our community and the individuals who provide that safety and are charged with the responsibility of providing that safety.”

Last week, the council delayed consideration of Dooley’s two nominees to the board – Republican Dave Spence and Democrat Freddy Clark. In moving to delay a hearing on the nominees, Stenger said that O’Mara’s proposal was still pending.

He added on Tuesday that he didn’t know how a background check would affect these nominations “because I don’t have the information yet.”

Burkett voted against O’Mara’s proposal, saying she was uncomfortable with subjecting nominees to a credit check. When asked if the ordinance was “targeted legislation” at Spence and Clark, Burkett responded, “No doubt about that.”

“A lot of us have financial problems – not all of us have the best credit record in the world,” said Burkett, whose financial problems were in full public view last year. “Would that keep you or me from serving on a commission? I mean, who’s going to judge that? It’s not really clear what that means. You get a credit check, you’ve got a bad credit score. Is that going to keep you from being on a commission? I don’t know.”

“I’m not opposed to the background check at all,” she added. “I just thought the credit report was going a little too far.”

While he did not say he would veto O'Mara's ordinance, Dooley added, "I’m just saying they passed something that wasn’t necessary." 

"What they should have focused on is what they didn’t focus on," Dooley said. "So again, that’s where we are."

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

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