Judge puts kibosh on multi-faceted St. Louis County charter amendment
After ruling that a proposed St. Louis County charter amendment had a misleading ballot summary, a judge struck down a measure to enact campaign donation limits and restrict fund transfers between county departments.
It’s a decision that could have a major impact on future elections for St. Louis County executive.
The council this year passed a charter amendment that placed $2,600 donation limits on contributions to county-level offices and restricts donations when the Council is considering contracts. That charter amendment also placed restrictions on how funds could be transferred between departments — which is one of the reasons St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger opposed the proposal. (Stenger also said the measure gives an unfair advantage to self-funding candidates, such as his Democratic primary adversary Mark Mantovani.)
Ultimately, a challenge to the charter amendment was filed in court. And on Tuesday, Judge Gael Wood ruled that the ballot summary for the proposal was misleading — and barred the St. Louis County Board of Elections from counting votes for the measure.
“The Court finds that because the use of the word ‘interdepartmental” rather than “intradepartmental” renders the ballot summary of [the proposal] misleading, it need not and does not consider other claims the Plaintiff regarding the bill and ballot summary,” Wood wrote in his decision.
That passage of Wood’s decision is a reference to how the charter amendment was legally challenged for having too many subjects. Wood also ruled that separate charter amendments to give the County Council its own lawyer and allow council members to enter into independent contracting arrangements with governments could be voted on.
Eric Fey, the Democratic director for the St. Louis Board of Elections, said in an e-mail that his agency had "no interest in the substance of the case." Rather, the Board of Elections' "only concern was the timing of any court order."
"At the initial hearing the judge assured us that he wouldn’t order anything to be physically eradicated from the ballot which is all we were really concerned with," Fey said. "As a result, on Election Day we will post signs in the voting booths stating that any votes cast for or against Proposition 4 will not be counted or tabulated even though the actual proposition will remain on the ballot."
Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said that a “typo” ended up derailing the proposed charter amendment.
“It’s news that we win two out of three,” Page said in a text message to St. Louis Public Radio. “If the County votes on Aug.7 against alleged collection of campaign funds while contract awards are being considered by a county executive aren’t counted, it is a shame."
"We are reviewing options,” Page added.
Assuming Wood’s decision stands, whoever wins the Democratic primary for county executive between Stenger and Mantovani on Aug. 7 will have at least a three-month window to scoop up unlimited amounts of money. That could give that person a commanding financial advantage into the future — even if the council places another charter amendment on the ballot in November.
The charter amendment also doesn’t restrict donations for people running for municipal-based offices. That would provide the opportunity for someone to open a campaign committee for city council or mayor, take in big donations, and eventually use those funds for a county-based race.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum