After weeks of often acrimonious debate, the St. Louis County Council voted along party lines Tuesday to give St. Louis County Executive Sam Page power over directing nearly $175 million worth of federal coronavirus funds.
It’s a move Democratic members of the council said they feel is necessary to act quickly to combat the deadly virus. But the council’s three Republicans, and some of Page’s opponents in the Democratic county executive primary, believe it creates an imbalance of power.
The council voted 4-3 to create a fund to house $173.5 million worth of federal money to fight coronavirus. It would give Page’s administration responsibility for spending the money to, among other things, “address public health, humanitarian and economic consequences of COVID-19, with special emphasis on addressing the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable and underserved populations, particularly the African American community and people with chronic medical problems.”
Democratic majority carries vote
The vote fell along party lines: Democrats Lisa Clancy, Kelli Dunaway, Rita Days and Rochelle Walton Gray voted for the measure. Republicans Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas voted against it.
Page told reporters on Tuesday that having the council approve each allocation of the federal money would delay the funds from effectively combating the virus. That was a sentiment shared by Dunaway.
“The issue I have with going through the normal legislative process is that it takes several weeks,” said Dunaway, D-Chesterfield. “And, yes, there are times when we can get together in an emergency and push things through in one meeting. But we have seen this whole year — frankly, since January — that is not how this council operates. We can get four votes on what we want to do. And we've got three votes fighting us every step of the way on many, many things.”
Dunaway was referring to the three Republican members of the council, who have opposed some of the Democratic-led council’s actions over the past few months.
Trakas, though, sees the move as giving too much authority to Page’s office.
“It has zero to do with politics and zero to do with election-year partisanship,” said Trakas, R-south St. Louis County. “This has to do with basic tenets of separation of power and the legislative body's duty as a check and balance on the executive branch to do its due diligence and scrutinize requests for appropriations.”
Clancy, the council’s chairwoman, created a committee that Dunaway will lead to oversee coronavirus spending. Dunaway said that the committee will meet every Tuesday, adding council members want to “make sure that we aren't just looking at where the money has gone and where it's going, but we want to have a say in how it's being spent.”
“And we have all been assured by the county executive's office that what we want matters and they are looking for us to collaborate with them in deciding where this money is going,” Dunaway said.
Trakas, though, has said that the committee is insufficient. He added he would rather have the council sign off on where the money goes.
“And I have a duty to the people that put me there to make sure that we account for the money that the county receives from the federal government or anywhere else is spent appropriately,” Trakas said. “I take that duty very seriously.”
County executive contenders sound off
Two of Page’s opponents in the Democratic primary for county executive, Mark Mantovani and County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, have said they believe the council should preapprove allocation of the relief money.
Mantovani said in prepared remarks to the council, “The taxpayers of St. Louis County have learned from past experience that the best interests of the community are served by having an informed and engaged county council that holds the county executive accountable.” He was referring to the acrimonious relationship the council had with Steve Stenger, who Mantovani narrowly lost to in the 2018 Democratic primary for county executive.
“One would have expected the current county executive, of all people, to appreciate the necessity of accountability and budgetary oversight as he formerly opposed the abusive budget practices of his predecessor and supported the charter amendment that ended unauthorized spending,” said Mantovani, referring to how Page strongly opposed some of Stenger’s budgetary moves when he was chairman of the county council.
Zimmerman said in a statement: "If the disaster that was the Steve Stenger administration taught us anything, it was that our citizens should be skeptical about financial decision-making conducted in secret.”
“I call on the St. Louis County Council to commit to open and transparent budgetary decision-making; our citizens must be assured that elected officials understand their pain and their fears,” Zimmerman said. “We want to trust the officials we elected to act in our best interests, but we can’t if decision-making is done behind closed doors.”
Page said Tuesday he has “always and will continue to look to the council members for advice and counsel when making big decisions in county government.”
“But from an operational standpoint, moving these funds into a place where they can be spent urgently when needed, without repeated trips back for appropriations, is the right way to do it,” Page said. “It's the way emergencies are usually handled, and it's how grants are usually handled.”
He also added, “We're in a partisan election cycle — and there's always going to be noise around anything that the government does.”
“That's what happens in politics, and that's what happens in an election year,” Page said. “I think our county residents expect us to come together in an emergency and govern and take care of people in a public health crisis and get our economy open again.”
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