Bell begins prosecutorial tenure amid uncertainty about St. Louis County’s future
Nearly five years ago, Wesley Bell had a murky political future.
He fell short of winning a seat on the St. Louis County Council after losing decisively to incumbent Hazel Erby.
Flash forward to the first day of 2019 and Bell’s political fortunes have dramatically shifted. After winning election to a Ferguson City Council seat after the shooting death of Michael Brown, Bell shocked St. Louis County by easily upending Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. As he looked upon hundreds of people gathered for his Tuesday afternoon inauguration, Bell acknowledged the opportunity, and challenge, ahead.
“We can’t do it alone,” Bell said. “You want to go fast? Go alone. You want to go far? We have to go together.”
Bell and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger were sworn in on Tuesday, along with four members of the St. Louis County Council. The 44-year-old took his official oath of office at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, making him the first African-American prosecutor in St. Louis County’s history.
Before he ever ran for office, Bell served as a municipal prosecutor and judge for a number of cities throughout St. Louis County. He also taught at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. While some have described his political ascension as an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, Bell spent the run up to his prosecutorial bid meticulously building his name recognition as Ferguson dealt with the aftermath of Brown’s death.
His campaign had support from local and national groups that want to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Among other things, Bell has promised to eliminate cash bail and never seek the death penalty. He also wants assistant prosecutors to be assigned to specific parts of St. Louis County and expand diversionary programs like drug courts.
“It’s time that we get ahead of the curve and start expanding those programs for non-violent, low-level offenders so that they don’t progress to the violent crimes,” Bell said. “We’re going to seriously address the cash bail system. Currently, the murderer with means is able to get out while the low level offender who is not a threat to anyone languishes in jail. And that’s not right.”
Bell’s victory showcased the emergence of a multi-racial political coalition banding together African-Americans in north St. Louis County and the more integrated cities in the county’s central corridor. But the run-up to his inauguration has also brought heightened scrutiny.
For one thing, newly-inaugurated Councilman Tim Fitch has urged Bell to turn over the prosecution of a man accused of murder and sexual assault at a Ballwin Catholic Supply Store to the U.S. Attorney. Fitch said in late November that if Thomas Bruce is convicted, he deserves the death penalty.
And in December, assistant prosecutors in Bell’s office voted to join the St. Louis Police Officers Association. That agency has had a tumultuous relationship with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who last year announced that she would not take cases from certain police officers.
Bell said one of his priorities is meeting with everyone who works in the prosecutor’s office.
“I’ve gotten the chance to meet with them in groups. But first and foremost, I want to make sure that they understand that they’re a part of what we’re doing,” Bell said. “They’re a part of this team. And I want to hear their input. Because they’ve been in there in the trenches. And I want to make sure they know that their input is welcome.”
For his part, Bell said he understands, and welcomes, that his landmark election will bring heightened scrutiny — and expectations.
“Serving as a city councilman in Ferguson, I got a little practice,” Bell said. “We’re going to keep the message the same — which is inclusion, partnerships, working together — so we can implement the changes that St. Louis County voters overwhelmingly supported.”
The last county executive?
In many respects, Stenger was sworn into his second term in office under less than celebratory circumstances.
The Democratic chief executive barely fended off a primary challenge from businessman Mark Mantovani before easily dispatching Republican Paul Berry III. In contrast to 2015, he enters the next four years with little political support on the St. Louis County Council — which means his vetoes can easily be overridden and his agenda items could be instantly derailed.
Still, Stenger struck an optimistic tone. He used his speech to tout big-ticket economic development projects, and the creation of a prescription drug monitoring program.
“I came into office on the overarching goal of improving the lives of all St. Louis County residents,” Stenger said. “We have work to do that, and I can point to progress in all parts of the county.”
Near the end of his address, Stenger said “to address regional inequities, we need to think and act as one region.” That comes amid rumblings that a plan to combine St. Louis and St. Louis County governments could be on the horizon.
Better Together, a group that’s been studying the possibility of a city-county merger for the past five years, is expected to unveil a proposal soon. The St. Louis Business Journal reported in December that the plan could include having a mayor, prosecutor and assessor be responsible for governance of a united jurisdiction. (Better Together executive director Nancy Rice told the Business Journal that her group has not finalized its report.)
While Stenger emphasized he wants to wait for the actual proposal to come out to render a verdict, he added “as a general matter, I like what I see.” He added “it allows for all types of coordination and collaboration, which I think we desperately need as a region.”
“So those bits and pieces that I have seen are encouraging,” Stenger said. “I await the final report.”
Both Fitch and Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, though, took a dimmer view of the proposal, adding that their constituents have consistently told them they’re not in favor of any type of city-county union.
“I didn’t run into one constituent during my campaign that said ‘we think a city-county merger is a good idea,’” Fitch said. “However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can still do together. We just don’t need, in my opinion and the constituents I work for’s opinion, a combined government.”
Fitch added he’s also opposed to having the entire state, as opposed to St. Louis and St. Louis County residents, vote on any proposal. Having a statewide vote opens up the possibility that a plan is implemented even if St. Louis and St. Louis County residents vote against it.
Stenger said “the only way to achieve the real collaboration and consolidation and defragmentation that I think our region most desperately needs is actually by a statewide vote.”
“Because it has to be done through a constitutional amendment,” Stenger said. “While I have always said, and I continue to say, it would be great to see just a local vote, I don’t think we would be able to achieve anything that the report calls with just a local vote. We would actually need to change the founding documents of our state.”
Missouri’s Constitution has a process in place for the city and county to merge together in a number of ways. Efforts to actually accomplish that in recent decades have failed.
Council war redux?
Since 2017, Stenger has had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with members of the council — which has four Democrats and three Republicans. The council recently cut some of Stenger’s budget recommendations, and also overturned his vetoes on a charter amendment decreasing the county executive’s budgetary power. Some council members also have been critical of Stenger’s leadership style, including his influence on the St. Louis County Economic Development Partnership.
Some members of the County Council who were sworn in on Tuesday expressed bullishness about forging a better working relationship going forward. Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said a lot of people have asked her if she’s going to be voting with the council or siding with Stenger.
Her response? “I don’t know if I subscribe to that either/or.”
“I think we’re going into a new year and I’m an optimist,” said Clancy, D-Maplewood. “I’m not going to count that out. I think that we’ve got some new voices at the table and hopefully that can maybe soften some of the hard edges a little bit.”
Harder added “we’ll always have some difference of opinions — it’s how we find common ground.”
“I think we can find common ground with the county executive’s office when they come to the table, as well as others in the council,” said Harder.
Stenger noted, as he usually does, how he and the council agree on the vast majority of issues that St. Louis County confronts.
But he also chastised the council for some of its agenda, which includes removing a requirement that contractors bidding for construction projects be linked with apprenticeship programs.
“I think we’re going to continue to do what we’ve done in order to have those successes for St. Louis County residents,” Stenger said. “To the extent that we ruffle some feathers on the council, those feathers are probably going to continue to be ruffled. And I’m totally OK with that. As it’s been said: You’ve gotta break some eggs to make omelets. But we’ve been making some very nice omelets — and we’ve been definitely breaking some eggs.”
Meanwhile, St. Louis officials are expected to swear in citywide officials on Wednesday. That includes Michael Butler, a former state representative who will be serving as St. Louis’ new recorder of deeds. Butler is the first African-American to serve in that position, which is responsible for filing essential real estate documents and issuing marriage licenses.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum