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Florissant and St. Charles top list of spirited mayoral races

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 31, 2011 - Forget the back and forth over St. Louis County's new elected assessor, O'Fallon's proposed public smoking ban or the fate of the St. Louis' earnings tax.

In many local communities, what is most likely to drive voters to the polls next Tuesday, say some election officials, will be the region's contentious -- and, in many cases, crowded -- battles to be mayors.

At least 27 St. Louis County municipalities will elect mayors next Tuesday, and all but a handful feature two or more candidates. Veteran incumbents Conrad Bowers of Bridgeton and Dennis Hancock of Fenton are among those facing challengers. (Click here for St. Louis County's list of candidates and issues on the April 5 ballot.)

Residents recently packed a huge gym in Florissant to hear from all six of the contenders vying to succeed retiring Mayor Robert Lowery, who was under fire for much of last year. Five candidates are battling for the top spot in nearby Bellefontaine Neighbors, where incumbent Marty Rudloff also is retiring. And four are competing in Chesterfield to succeed John Nations, who resigned as mayor to become Metro's new chief executive.

Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis Couny Municipal League, says the retirements of several veteran mayors have contributed to the unusual number of crowded contests.

In St. Charles

But arguably the region's most closely watched mayoral competition is on neighboring turf, the two-person battle in St. Charles, the region's third-largest municipality with a population of 65,794, where incumbent Patti York is facing challenger Sally Faith, a state legislator.

The St. Charles mayor, like the mayors in Florissant and Bellefontaine Neighbors, has more power and responsibilities than most of their regional counterparts, many of whom are part-time mayors with full-time city managers. In cities with "strong mayor systems," the mayors call most of the governmental shots.

(Full-time mayors also earn more. In St. Charles, the next mayor will earn $70,000. In Florissant, which is smaller than St. Charles but the largest municipality in St. Louis County, the next mayor will be paid $135,746 a year.)

In the St. Charles battle, Patti York -- who has held office for 12 years -- highlights Sally Faith's decision to announce for St. Charles mayor within weeks after Faith had won another term in the state House.

York also is targeting Faith's shifts on two hot-button issues in Jefferson City. Faith is disavowing a bill she co-sponsored to repeal much of Proposition B, which restricts dog breeders. She also announced this week that she no longer supports "right to work'' legislation to bar closed-union shops.

Faith acknowledges telling York in 2009 that she was considering a run for mayor. But Faith says she didn't make a final decision until last year.

Faith says her chief reasons for running include her opposition to last year's decisions by St. Charles officials, including York, to pay a $235,823 severance package to the city's departing former finance director, to cut back on a tax credit program for older residents and to approve a pay hike for whoever fills the next mayoral term.

York says the severance package was cheaper than a likely court fight with the former finance director and that the tax credit program had to be scaled back because of city finances. She also says that it was the City Council that approved the mayoral pay hike, which doesn't go into effect until the next mayor -- her or Faith -- is sworn in.

All of the above, and more, were cited during the duo's last meeting Monday night, at a forum in St. Charles' New Town area.

Both pledged to focus on economic development, to address the city's older housing stock -- some of which is in disrepair, both noted -- and to protect the city's riverfront Frontier Park.

Faith contended the city was too reliant on gaming income from the Ameristar Casino, and pledged in several answers that she would not be "controlling" in her dealings with top city officials and employees -- an inference that York was. "I am not a micromanager," Faith said.

York replied that it was the mayor's job to be "controlling," if that meant monitoring all major city decisions as St. Charles' chief executive.

In interviews, York says she is running on her 12-year record, which she believes is a strong one: "I'm a proven leader, and I want to continue doing it." York cited her role in various redevelopment efforts in St. Charles, which she says has now "become a dominant force in the region." The city, she said, is "adding 12 new businesses a month."

At the same time, she says her administration has cut taxes by 16 percent over the past 12 years. "If you've got a good doctor, why change?" York said, referring to herself.

With regard to her opponent, York contends that it's legitimate to question whether Faith would listen to the public, given her changes on issues in Jefferson City. Many area labor unions, for example, are backing York, in part because they are wary of Faith's true views on "right to work."
Faith says she has assured hundreds of callers that she no longer backs the legislative effort to curb union rights. As for Proposition B, she says her main reason for co-sponsoring a repeal was to spark discussion of the matter.
Faith says she has held weekly public meetings at her home in recent months to listen to local residents. She also is calling for an online "accountability portal'' so that St. Charles' finances can be monitored in the same way that state spending can be viewed by the public via such an internet "portal" put in place several years ago.

In Florissant

Like many older communities in the county, Florissant is under pressure to maintain its older areas while encouraging new development and businesses. At the same time, the city is dealing with the economic downturn and tight city revenues. All the candidates said at a recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters that they recognized the challenges facing the city, while also praising its many assets.

At the March 9 forum, most of the candidates cited the city budget as one of their top priorities if elected. During the forum's question-answer session, several older residents said they wanted to make sure the community maintains its many programs for retirees.

All of the mayoral candidates said they were committed to maintaining the quality of Florissant's housing stock and dealing quickly with rundown or foreclosed properties, so that property values wouldn't be harmed.

Casting a shadow over the contest is retiring mayor Lowery, as well as the late longtime Mayor James J. Egan, who remains a popular -- almost legendary -- figure even though he died 11 years ago. Egan was Florissant's mayor for 37 years, and the city's civic center is named after him.

Lowery, who was the police chief during Egan's later years in office, came under fire last year from critics who alternately accused him of wielding too much power and not being engaged enough in day-to-day city affairs. A state audit issued last summer by then-state Auditor Susan Montee said that city ordinances -- most of them crafted during Egan's tenure -- gave Lowery broad powers.

Montee's audits cited some questionable expenditures or lax bookkeeping, but did not find any serious wrongdoing.

Tthe challenge for the crowd of the candidates has been to distinguish themselves from each other. The six are, in ballot order: Tom Schneider, Mark Behlmann, Andrew Podleski, Susan Geerling, Michael John Spreng, and Robert Garrett.
Schneider has served on the City Council for 32 years and has been endorsed by retiring mayor Lowery.

Behlmann runs a homebuilding company and has been on the Hazelwood School District's School Board for 14 years.

Podleski has been on the City Council since 2008 and made an unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2007.

Geerling is former eight-year member of the City Council, including a stint as council president. She's also a relative of former St. Louis Mayor Jim Conway.

Spreng recently completed eight years as a state representative.

Garrett, a lawyer and former mediator with an engineering degree, is a former city councilman.

At thet forum, all six said they would focus on public safety, retaining city programs for the elderly, and in crafting a balanced and sensible budget. (Click here to view a short video of the forum, created by FlorissantPatch.)

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.

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