Calls For Unity Dominate Virtual Inaugurations In St. Louis County
Under the twin shadows of the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, St. Louis County leaders took their oaths of office Tuesday in a ceremony streamed live on YouTube.
County Executive Sam Page; Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County; and Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County; participated in the official inauguration festivities. Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, held a private ceremony.
Page has held the county executive post since April 2019, when the council voted him into office after fellow Democrat Steve Stenger resigned while under investigation for corruption. The 2020 election was to fill the remainder of Stenger’s term — Page would have to run again in 2022 for a full term.
“Every inauguration marks both an end as well as a beginning — the end of what came before and the beginning of something new,” Page said. “The past couple of years have required us to take strong stands on hard issues.”
He touted his success at keeping public housing in the city of Wellston, bringing in outside help to improve the county’s police department and making the county’s government more transparent.
“At its core, government must work well for everyone,” Page said. “These will be our priorities — health and safety, opportunity, good government. Our success will be measured by whether everyone, everyone, is included.”
Page had a fairly lengthy honeymoon period after taking over for Stenger. But sharp divides opened after the coronavirus pandemic emerged as a major public health issue. Page and the council sparred over who would distribute $173 million in federal relief and whether his administration had the authority to issue long-term public health mandates like requiring masks.
While Page took a jab at those he said want to bring politics into public health issues, he also spoke of the need to get beyond divisions.
“In recent years, our nation has been divided by hatred, hostility and ignorance, and last week that division almost tore us apart. Let us learn from that dark moment. Let us put the dark days of division behind us. Let us put an end to the bitter politics of the past.”
Unity was also a key message for Trakas.
“We as elected representatives do not have the luxury of partisan bickering and grandstanding to further personal agendas,” he said. “We can no longer choose not to govern.”
Trakas fought off a strong challenge from Democrat Bob Burns to keep his seat representing a wide swath of south St. Louis County. He said the abuse he had taken over the past four years for what he called hard choices made him question whether it was worth it to remain in office.
“Each time I do, I remember the note an old friend sent to me. She encouraged me to hang in there, because as she wrote, ‘You only get flak when you’re over the target,’” Trakas said. “I intend to stay over the target and continue my relentless mission to root out corruption, protect District 6 and bring good governance to St. Louis County.”
Webb, a software engineer at Boeing, pledged to be an advocate for north St. Louis County, which has been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, both economically and physically.
“To my colleagues on the council — we may not always agree, but we must always do what is right for the people we serve,” she said. “We are in this together. We love our communities, and together we must work hard to make it the shining star through the St. Louis region. It is time to roll up our sleeves, put on our work boots, and grind it out day by day.”
County Council dynamics
The swearings-in represent an inflection point for the direction of the council.
For much of Page’s first 20 months as county executive, the council’s four Democrats were a reliable voting bloc in favor of his policies. But Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, D-Bel Nor, has begun to break ranks with her fellow partisans, especially on issues related to equity. On occasion, Trakas provides the fourth vote in support of Page’s agenda, most notably last week when he voted to reelect Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, as chairwoman over Days. He was named vice chair in that same election.
The leadership election came amid questions over which members were eligible to vote. A change in the county’s charter had moved the vote on council leadership to a date after the terms of members technically expire but before new members are sworn in. That meant Webb, who replaces Page ally Rochelle Walton Gray, had no say in the council’s leadership.
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, plans to ask for a second vote on the positions of chair and vice chair. It is not clear whether his effort will succeed or who would get Webb's vote.
Clancy will ask for legislation that would move the start date of terms for the County Council back to the first Tuesday in January.
Webb could also provide a critical vote in overriding any veto that Page may issue of legislation seeking to restrict his authority relating to public health issues.
Inaugurations in a pandemic
Swearings-in are usually filled with pomp, circumstance and crowds. But the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered the look of the ceremonies.
The events were livestreamed, with recorded musical interludes from musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Page, Trakas and Webb gathered with their families and small groups of supporters in separate rooms of the county building in Clayton, wearing masks except when they delivered their speeches.
Judge Michael Burton of St. Louis County and Chief Justice George Draper of the Missouri Supreme Court swore them in individually.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.