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Government, Politics & Issues

Judge Rules Rita Days Is Chairwoman Of St. Louis County Council

Former St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby congratulates Rita Days, a former state lawmaker who will fill Erby's 1st District seat on the council. Aug. 6, 2019
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
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A judge ruled that Councilwoman Rita Days, right, is the chairwoman of the St. Louis County Council. Days, a former state senator, succeeded former Councilwoman Hazel Erby, left, in representing the council's 1st District.

A St. Louis County judge ruled Tuesday that St. Louis County Councilwoman Rita Days is the chairwoman of the council, rejecting a bid from allies of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page to remove her from the post.

St. Louis County Judge Thomas Albus ruled that a vote to make Councilwoman Lisa Clancy the chairwoman was invalid because the term of the member with the deciding vote — now former Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray — had expired.

At issue is what happened during the council’s first meeting on Jan. 5. Gray, who was defeated last year by Shalonda Webb, attended the meeting and cast the deciding vote for Clancy to remain chairwoman over Days. After Webb was sworn in, she joined three other council members who ousted Clancy and elected Days chairwoman.

St. Louis County Counselor Beth Orwick, an appointee of Page, filed a lawsuit to oust Days as chairwoman and install Clancy in her place. But Albus rejected the contention that Gray’s term hadn’t expired after Dec. 31 — which meant her vote on Jan. 5 was invalid.

“Because one of the four votes for Councilperson Clancy was cast by Councilperson Rochelle Walton Gray, whose term expired on December 31, 2020 and whose holdover status under the Missouri Constitution ended before the January 5, 2020 vote, Councilwoman Clancy was not elected by the majority of the St. Louis County Council,” Albus wrote.

Albus went on to write that “in the present case,” there “exists no such danger of a lengthy, harmful period of vacancy.”

“Indeed, to the extent that Councilperson Webb reflects the current will of her constituents, the public interest described in [a prior ruling] was not served by the hold over Councilperson Gray, whom Councilperson Webb defeated in the August primary election, and who voted contrary to the preference of her successor in the election for 2021 chair and vice chair,” Albus wrote.

Days said in a telephone interview that she’s “hoping that this is the end of that.”

“I’m hoping that we can get back to the business of handling issues and challenges that are facing the residents of St. Louis County,” Days said. “I’m pleased with the ruling, of course, and looking to move forward.”

In a statement, Clancy said, “I consider this matter settled, and I am glad to have it behind us.”

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the council voted to pay for outside attorneys from Husch Blackwell to defend Days, Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, and Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County. In a statement signed by Days, Harder, Fitch and Webb, the majority coalition of the council said the Jan. 15 vote “represents the will of the majority of the duly elected council members for the 2021 calendar year and the constituents they represent.”

“The undersigned are glad to have this dispute behind them and are ready to move forward with the important business before the Council,” the four council members wrote.

Clancy said she also is ready to move forward.

“To me, this has definitely never been about disrespect for Councilwoman Webb or former Councilwoman Walton Gray,” Clancy said. “It was — and remains — about ensuring the independence of county government from ideology, and about following the rules. With this clarification from the court, we have what we need to put this issue behind us — and that is what I intend to do.”

In many respects, the dispute between Days and Clancy had little to do with the balance of power of the council — since Days, Webb, Harder and Fitch possess the majority of the votes for at least through the beginning of 2023. But it was a flashpoint of sorts between four detractors of Page’s leadership and three council members who tend to be more favorable to the Democratic chief executive.

But the ruling will have practical implications. As chairwoman, Days will have the ability to organize committees. And she’ll get to rule whenever there’s a dispute over procedure. It also calls into question the fate of legislation on which Gray voted during the Jan. 5 meeting.

Unless Clancy, Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, or Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County, joins with the majority coalition, it's one vote short of being able to override Page’s vetoes. And that’s mattered in recent weeks, most notably with legislation that took aim at Gray’s salary and benefits from the position Page appointed her to in the St. Louis County Department of Health.

For her part, Days said she’s “just glad that this is over.”

“This has been a very nerve-wracking experience for me,” she said. “And I just want it over.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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