The first St. Louis County Council meeting since news of a federal subpoena of County Executive Steve Stenger broke featured an agreement that no outside counsel was needed to respond to the request.
But despite that decision, the meeting became testy when council members wondered why they couldn’t see the subpoena that has shaken up Stenger’s administration.
With a subpoena seeking records from Stenger, members of his staff and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, council members met in special session Thursday night to consider whether to bring in private attorneys to assist.
During the meeting, Assistant County Counselor Micki Wochner said she was confident that her office could respond to the subpoena without help.
“Our office is certainly prepared to go forward and respond to this request without the hiring of outside counsel,” Wochner said. “I believe that there was a conversation that perhaps there are some people who aren’t confident that the county counselor’s office would be neutral in regards to the branches of government and department. And it was offered as a way to make people feel more comfortable.”
The council and St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane’s office have had a tense relationship over the past couple of years. Members of the council sought to get voter approval to have the council have its own attorney, but that charter amendment failed narrowly last year.
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, said not having outside counsel come in to respond to the subpoena makes financial sense.
“It’s fair to say that it would cost significantly more money,” Trakas sad. “And as you heard, the county counselor’s office is capable and qualified to respond to the subpoena. So I see no reason to hire outside counsel for that purpose.”
Before the council went into closed session, Trakas and Wochner got into a heated conversation about whether the council could see the subpoena.
“As your client, am I not entitled and are my colleagues not entitled to view the contents of what amounts to the file in a case that involves us?”
Wochner responded: “Again, I’m going to share with you that I haven’t reached a conclusion on that. I haven’t researched that.”
Councilman Sam Page said earlier this week that the subpoena was looking into county contracts, particularly the sale of an industrial park in Wellston and the Northwest Plaza project in St. Ann. Some of Stenger’s adversaries questioned whether those projects proceeded because the developers donated to the county executive’s campaign. Stenger has consistently denied he’s engaged in pay to play.
Page, D-Creve Coeur, declined to elaborate on his prior comments, telling a group of reporters “I believe that I will stand on what I said so far this week and I won’t have any other comments tonight.”
Stenger hasn’t said much since the news broke, only releasing a short statement saying he would fully comply with the subpoena. He did speak with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, contending that it was fairly routine for either a St. Louis mayor or county executive to be subpoenaed. Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley vociferously denied Stenger’s characterization.
Since 2017, Stenger and the council have had an antagonistic relationship, but Trakas reiterated there is no reason to celebrate how the subpoena cast a cloud around the county executive and county government.
He added that county residents should feel confident that St. Louis County will continue to provide vital services to people.
“It’s unfortunate that this particular investigation had to proceed. But it is and it will,” Trakas said. “And I’m confident whatever the result the county will be better for it on the back end.”
Krewson responds to Stenger turmoil
Earlier Thursday, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson fielded questions about how Stenger’s woes could affect city-county cooperation — and a proposed merger between the two jurisdictions.
Stenger and Krewson have close ties, as they’ve employed some of the same political consultants and received strong backing from organized labor groups. Asked if she still supported Stenger, Krewson replied: “You know what, it’s my job to work with whoever the county executive is.”
“So I’m going to continue to work with the county on every issue that we can,” Krewson said.
Krewson added that she has not been interviewed by federal authorities about Stenger. She also said that she was not worried that Stenger’s legal issues would affect the Better Together proposal to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County.
“I don’t think it’s really related to Better Together frankly,” Krewson said. “I haven’t seen any of those documents. I really don’t know anything about that. But what I do know is that the fragmentation that we have here in our region with 88 municipalities, 55 fire departments, 78 municipal courts is not working well for all of our people.
“Ask yourself whether or not all the police departments and all the courts is really working?” she added.
Better Together altered their proposal earlier this week to remove Stenger as the first metro mayor. Instead, the county executive and mayor who are in office on January 1, 2021, would effectively serve as co-mayors to usher in the new government.
But that change presents some potential challenges. If, for instance, Stenger leaves office and is replaced by someone who doesn’t get along with Krewson, it could make it much more difficult to make key decisions over the two-year transition period.
Krewson, though, is not worried about such a scenario.
“I’ve got a record of being able to get along with folks and being civil and working things out,” Krewson said. “So I am committed.”
Better Together executive director Nancy Rice said earlier this week the decision to no longer make Stenger the metro mayor was unrelated to the subpoena — but rather backlash against St. Louis County officials serving as the first leaders of the new government. In the original plan, Stenger would have been able to serve as metro mayor until 2024 — two years beyond his county executive term.
Krewson would serve as a transition mayor until the beginning of 2023. That’s about a year and a half beyond the expiration of her four-year term in 2021. When asked to respond to criticism about that part of the merger plan, Krewson said that it makes sense to have existing elected officials a part of the transitional government.
“When you’re trying to transition or bring together, the old county and the old city, you want a couple of folks who know something about how they actually work today,” Krewson said. “I think we’ll get to the best combination through that effort. But I understand that’s a question.”
Organizers behind the Better Together plan to get signatures to place the plan on the 2020 statewide ballot.
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