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St. Louis County charter amendments could strengthen the power of the council

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.

St. Louis County voters will decide next week whether to shift budgetary power to the County Council — as well as to adopt or reject a number of other charter amendments that council members proposed.

The budgetary issue is another offshoot of the feud between the council and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger — a schism that could get even worse in early 2019.

The council voted this summer to place some of the following charter amendments before St. Louis County voters:

  • Proposition 1: Placing donation limits of $2,600 on contributions to county-based campaign committees. Currently, someone can give a donation of unlimited size to candidates running for county executive or the County Council.
  • Proposition 2:Restricting the county’s ability to sell or build a commercial facility on park land. Under the charter amendment, the county would have to place a countywide proposition on a ballot to make such a move.
  • Proposition B: Giving the council significantly more authority over budgetary matters.
  • Proposition C: Requiring that certain county financial information be placed online.
  • Proposition D:Forming a commission to potentially revise the county’s charter.

Proposition B may be the most significant. Currently, a county executive has immense authority over budgetary matters. Under the charter amendment, the council would be able to make “supplemental or emergency appropriations from available income and reduce or transfer appropriations.” The council wouldn’t need the county executive to recommend any appropriation or fund transfer.

The amendment would also require the council to approve any county executive request to transfer money within a specific department.

“This is not some zero sum game power struggle,” said Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-south St. Louis County. “This is simply at least six members of an elected body acting as a check and balance in oversight on county government. Nothing more complex than that. It’s got nothing to do with politics. It’s got nothing to do with elections. It has everything to do with transparency and good governance.”

Proposition 2, in many respects, is in reaction to a scuttled plan to build an ice center at Creve Coeur Park. During the council’s public forum this summer, Chesterfield resident Kristy Heffernan said the charter amendment is “essential to the future of our St. Louis County Parks and the enjoyment of them by our current and future residents and visitors alike, both adults and children.”

“Let’s give the public and park users a chance to raise their voices and promote collaboration on these decisions and leverage our parks for economic growth and development by using them, not giving them away or selling park land,” Heffernan said.

Stenger on the offensive

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger speaks with reporters after winning the Democratic primary for county executive.
Credit File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger speaks with reporters after winning the Democratic primary for county executive.

For his part, Stenger is generally supportive of the charter amendments — with the exception of Proposition B.

Stenger has long contended that the proposal amounts to a power grab by the council, throwing what he describes a balanced approach to county budget planning completely out of whack.

“Just to put it as plainly as I can, I think Proposition B is just really bad government,” Stenger said last week. “It eliminates what we’ve had as time-honored, charter-granted checks and balances on county government. As it is right now, with respect to appropriations and spending, there’s a real balance. And it involves both the county executive and the council.”

He said “the balance” that the council is trying to achieve with Proposition B “would really allow the council essentially unlimited spending authority and unlimited cutting authority.”

“And you really can’t have that in a government,” Stenger said. “You really have to have that balance. I certainly wouldn’t want all that appropriation authority. And I don’t think that the council should really even want it.”

Stenger is putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. He’s donated thousands of dollars to a group known as the Missouri Association of Career Fire Protection Districts, which is running disparaging ads against Proposition B. That committee also produced negative ads against a charter amendment that would allow the council to have its own lawyer, a measure that narrowly failed in August.

As for some of the other proposed charter amendments, Stenger said he’s in favor of Proposition 2. He called that measure “an excellent idea.”

He said he’s “neutral” on placing campaign donation limits on county-based offices. While Stenger has stressed he supports the idea of contribution limits, he’s expressed misgivings that the proposal doesn’t account for a candidate who self-finances his or her campaign. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that self-funding is a First Amendment right. (It should be noted that Stenger spent more than $300,000 of his own money in his first campaign for county executive, although he raised far more money from other sources.)

Campaign finance backfire?

Proposition 1 does not limit contributions that go to campaign committees for mayor or city council races in St. Louis County. It also doesn’t do anything to prevent political action committees from raising or spending unlimited amounts of money.

And if the proposition ends up passing, Stenger may have a sizable advantage if he decides to run for another term as county executive. Even after his Democratic primary against Mark Mantovani, Stenger has roughly $457,000 of cash on hand. Unless one of his potential adversaries already has a large amount of money in the bank, Stenger’s financial advantage could scare other candidates away.

Asked about this scenario, Trakas replied: “Four years is a long time. But when you have no restrictions, you have no restrictions.” He said it was “absurd” that Stenger raised millions of dollars for his second term as county executive.

“That’s why the amendment’s there,” Trakas said. “We’ve got to get a handle on that. It’s just conducive to undue influence by special interests, in my opinion anyway.”

Follow Jason on Twitter:@jrosenbaum

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon.
Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.