Clancy Picked As St. Louis County Council Chair Amid Uproar Over Lame Duck Voting
A divided St. Louis County Council gave Chairwoman Lisa Clancy another year in her post Tuesday, amid an outcry over an outgoing lawmaker getting to vote on the matter instead of the person who defeated her last year.
Backers of the reelection of Clancy, an ally of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, contend this unusual situation is an unintended, but required, consequence of a charter change. But three Page detractors say the election of new leadership was illegal and an undemocratic slap in the face to voters of the north St. Louis County-based 4th District.
The conflict centers around Rochelle Walton Gray, who lost last year to Shalonda Webb in the 4th District Democratic primary. The same day voters picked Webb, they moved the swearing-in date for county officeholders from Jan. 1 to Jan. 12. Gray and her allies (as well as Page) interpret the charter to say she’s allowed to stay in office and vote until Webb is sworn in.
Gray delivered the decisive vote for Clancy to remain chairwoman, with Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, and Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, voting with the two Democrats. Councilmen Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, and Mark Harder, R-Chesterfield, voted for Councilwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor. Trakas was elected vice chairman.
“I recognize very much that we are still in a crisis here in St. Louis County, throughout our region and throughout our country as we continue to work through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Clancy, D-Maplewood, said. “I am committed to working with this entire council, even those that did not support me tonight. It’s time that we stop campaigning and we govern. And we put our constituents and community members that we serve first, so we can continue to get good things done for our community.”
Further action expected
After the vote, Days, Fitch and Harder announced they will attempt to rescind Clancy’s election in a subsequent meeting. Pointing to both Missouri Supreme Court precedent and the Missouri Constitution, those three councilmen say that Gray had no right to vote in Tuesday’s meeting because her term had expired.
When Trakas questioned why Fitch wasn’t contending that he and Dunaway weren’t eligible to vote since they were recently reelected, Fitch replied: “If Councilman Trakas really wants to go there — legally he’s right. Four people should be voting here. That’s it.
“It’s pretty clear that Councilwoman Gray intends, with the support of the county executive and the chair of this council, to unlawfully hold the office of councilmember for the 4th District,” Fitch said. “Former councilwoman Gray’s term began on Jan. 1, 2017. And pursuant to the county charter and the Missouri Constitution, her term expired on Dec. 31, 2020.”
Beyond the legal question of whether Gray should vote in Tuesday’s meeting, Fitch, Harder and Days have said it made no sense that the outgoing councilwoman should decide the leader of a council in which she won’t be a member. They also said it effectively disenfranchises residents of the 4th District since their elected representative, Webb, doesn’t get to make a decision.
“Every other legislative body in the state of Missouri would not approve new leaders with the old, lame duck councilpeople or state representatives or state senators from the past administration,” Harder said at the council’s Dec. 22 meeting. “They always vote for the leadership of the new caucus or the new legislative branch.”
For her part, Gray said she didn’t think it was a good idea to make changes to the county charter. But she added that “the majority thought it was a good idea, and they gave some compelling arguments to change it.”
“Four years is four years. I will have been in office for four years. But I cannot be removed until the new person is sworn in,” Gray said. “I still represent my district. I still get emails from my constituents. I get phone calls. I don’t think they would want my office to be vacated and they don’t have anyone that they could communicate with.”
Webb disappointed, but not ready to ‘blow up the council’
The chair of the county council has some ability to determine procedures of the council and send bills to committees but can’t get bills to Page’s desk without three other votes.
Still, Webb said the decision to hold the leadership elections without her isn't sitting well with her future constituents. She said she’s received emails, phone calls and texts — as well as people coming to her home — expressing outrage that she doesn’t get to take part in the decision.
“I’m disappointed by that. Not so much personally, but more because the people of North County spoke up,” Webb said in an interview on Monday. “And they voted and spoke up in August very clearly. And they spoke up again in November. And they voted for new leadership. And I believe by not allowing their choice to be a part of their decision disenfranchises them. And it silences their voices.”
In some respects, the fierce disagreement over the typically routine election of council leadership is indicative of a divide on the council between allies and adversaries of Page. After originally being supportive of the county executive in 2019, Days, Harder and Fitch became much more critical of Page’s leadership in 2020 — especially over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. That rancor may intensify throughout 2021 if they can get Webb to support them on certain issues.
Webb stressed on a recent episode of Politically Speaking that she was not coming into the council as a rigid vote for or against Page’s agenda. When asked whether Tuesday’s leadership vote could backfire on Page allies by driving her to align with the county executive’s adversaries, Webb replied: “I’m not trying to blow up the council. I want it to be a working, functional, effective council.
“I mean, this is important. But there are other issues for the people of North County and throughout the county are going through that we are not addressing because of this,” Webb said. “And that includes businesses not being able to come back from COVID or some mayors still don’t have adequate PPE. So there are real issues that we need to address. And having this hearing thrown in and made such a big issue distracts us from getting the business done.”
Some public speakers on Tuesday volunteered to be plaintiffs in a potential lawsuit over Clancy’s election. Webb said she does not plan to pursue litigation herself, but added, “I would like to work with trying to get the people of North County’s voice heard once I am in office on Jan. 12.
“You keep saying ‘we believe in you, we believe in you. We want to help North County. We want to hear North County’s voice,’” Webb said. “And every time… they trust the system and want to say ‘we vote, this is our decision.’ Then you say ‘well, not right now. I don’t want to hear from you right now. I’ll tell you when you can speak.’ That doesn’t sit well with our community.”
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