The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday grilled most of County Executive Sam Page’s nominees to the Board of Freeholders, a 19-person body that could rearrange the governance of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
One particular point of contention was that only one of Page’s selections lives in unincorporated St. Louis County. Other council members wanted to know the potential board members’ views on whether St. Louis should become a municipality within St. Louis County.
Page and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson have each nominated nine members to the board. Those nominees must receive approval from the St. Louis County Council and St. Louis Board of Aldermen, respectively. Krewson’s selections are expected to be voted on by an aldermanic committee on Wednesday. Gov. Mike Parson has one appointment to make.
For nearly two-and-a half hours, eight of Page’s nominees talked about their backgrounds and their reasons for wanting to serve on the board. Some of the nominees said they were entering the year-long process without definitive opinions on a particular proposal, like the city becoming a municipality within the county.
“I take it personally when I don’t feel that St. Louis gets the amount of respect that it deserves,” said Alex Garza, chief medical officer at SSM Health. “I know this is a very important position. For me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Most of the nominees, though, said the divide between the city and county is detrimental to both the region’s image and the quality of life of residents.
“What’s important to me is to leave something for my kids and for my grandkids — so that they don’t have this same problem in 20 or 30 years where the county and the city may be still trying to decide if they’re going to come together,” said Fred Searcy, an official with the pipefitters union. “A lot of our services our redundant. I think it can be improved.”
Anything that the board approves requires approval by city and county voters. Mark Mantovani, a businessman who lost the 2018 Democratic nomination for county executive to Steve Stenger, said, “There’s no point in proposing something that’s going to be rejected — unless the objective is only to move the conversation for the next generation to kind of deal with this mess.
“I think this is a lot of effort to go through for that,” Mantovani said. “It’s hugely important that we have a dialogue with the community in order for the community to first understand the options — and then express its preference.”
Unincorporated representation a flashpoint
Some of the nominees received sharp questions from council members.
Searcy is the only nominee from unincorporated St. Louis County. Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County, contended that left a third of county residents with limited representation.
“Help me understand how it’s reasonable that better than 10% of what would be the entire board comes from one small municipality, and they’re both white male professionals,” said Trakas, referring to Ladue. “Help me understand how that’s reasonable and how that represents the people.”
Mantovani, who grew up in Affton and currently lives in Ladue, answered: “I think you do this community a disservice when you speak to the kind of micro-parochialism that that question raises.”
“The Board of Freeholders is supposed to represent the county as a whole,” Mantovani said. “And where a person sleeps at night does not in and of itself control whether that person has an appreciation for the issues that unincorporated St. Louis County has.”
Asked about Trakas’ concern about a lack of representation from unincorporated St. Louis County, Page said putting together a slate of nominees is a “complicated puzzle.”
“When there are five or six variables to balance, it’s difficult to get them in a way that works for everyone,” Page said. “But I appreciate Councilman Trakas’ perspective. I think he has a point. I did the best I could to put this puzzle together — and we’ll continue talking about it.”
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, noted that the average age of Page’s nominees was 52. Fitch asked Cheryl Milton Roberts how she could represent the next generation on the board.
“So I’m a boomer by age — I’m a millennial by how I act, and I’m kind of a Gen Z by the fact that I do what I do,” said Roberts, who works for the Missouri Department of Transportation. “I think there’s ways to engage them and invite them to things or to ask, ‘What do you think, or what would you like to see?’ I just don’t think it can be a process with all of us elders telling us what their life ought to look like in however many years. I think you’ve got to ask them.”
Other nominees were asked about their prior public service.
For instance, Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, pressed former Bi-State Development Agency CEO John Nations about whether he was responsible for security issues on MetroLink.
“I would like for you to react to what was your responsibility you played in the dysfunction that is now causing us to question whether Bi-State deserves our funding at all,” Dunaway said.
In response, Nations said, “The situation at Bi-State requires something that this region needs to be better at, which is regional cooperation.”
“Our responsibility is to work with the jurisdictions in order to make it safe,” said Nations, who also served as mayor of Chesterfield.
No vote was taken Tuesday, as nominee Dee Joyner still needed to appear before council members. The council could vote on the nominees next week.
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