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O'Mara elected county council chair, promises more cooperation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2012 - The St. Louis County Council voted without opposition to elect Councilman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, as its chairman, replacing Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton.

Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, becomes vice chairman.

The council's chairmanship and vice chairmanship rotate every year. Since Democrats have a 5-2 majority on the council, they control who fills those two slots.

In an interview after Tuesday's vote, O'Mara signaled that he wanted a more cooperative relationship between the council and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

There was a noticeable split between council chairman Stenger and Dooley in 2011, especially over Dooley's initial budget, which called for closing many parks throughout the county.

"We're going to work together as a council and work together with the county executive to make things work," O'Mara said.

Dooley and Stenger were on opposite sides of the budget fight, as well as a separate battle over the executive's plan to raise property taxes to fund a salary increase for employees. While Dooley, who was not at Tuesday's meeting, said the cuts were necessary in the light of a declining economy, Stenger said the proposal was an ill-conceived method of extracting a tax increase out of the council.

The acrimony between Dooley and Stenger often bubbled above the surface, such as when the two got ina heated back-and-forth at a special budget committee meeting last month.

Although O'Mara was one of six council members who expressed opposition to Dooley's initial budget, he said he thought 2012 would see a different tone. For one thing, he said a budget committee established by Stenger would stay in place during the year.

"I don't think it will be acrimonious," O'Mara said. "I spoke with the county executive before the end of this year. We talked about working on the budget a little bit earlier this year. I think that'll make it a little less contentious than last year."

One unfinished aspect of the budget fight is how the parks department will deal with a roughly $3.6 million reduction.

That reduction could result in layoffs, although Parks Director Lindsey Swanick said in December the department would look at a number of options and that cutting full-time staff hasn't "been set in stone."

Mac Scott, a spokesman for the county, said in an e-mail on Tuesday that such decisions won't be made for about two or three weeks.

Asked about any advice he would provide to Dooley's administration on how to handle the parks situation, O'Mara said, "Before you look at cuts, I think you look at other avenues on what's going to make the parks grow." O'Mara said he was referring to potential layoffs.

"We look at the future of our county parks," O'Mara said. "What do we need to do for the next 20 years for our county parks? How are we going to make them grow? How are we going to maintain them? Those are some of the things we might need to isolate and keep as a separate agenda.

"And that will be one of our goals of taking a look at separate panel or separate group of council members to take a look at our parks and get a long-term range of what we might need to make our parks stable and make them grow in the future," he added.

Council Initiates Shelter Bill

One of the first notable agenda items of the year was filing an ordinance to eliminate residency as a factor for admittance to the Kathy J. Weinman Shelter.

For weeks, advocates of services for abused women have been speaking during the council's public forum about the need for an ordinance. O'Mara said before Tuesday's forum that legislation had been filed, which brought about a round of applause.

The ordinance states "any shelter for abused women and their children operated by St. Louis County shall not restrict entry into their shelter based on residency."

O'Mara said the bill would be perfected next week and finally passed the following week.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.