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Election Year Tensions Boil Over During St. Louis County Council Meeting

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis County Council melted down on Tuesday during consideration of minority participation legislation. 

It was the latest sign of boiling election year tensions between St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and members of the council aligned with Councilman Steve Stenger, a fellow Democrat vying for county executive.

At issue are several bills proposed by Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University.  Among other things, Erby’s bills would set up minority and female workforce guidelines for construction projects of $1 million or more. It would also set up an Office of Diversity Programs to sharpen the county’s outreach to minorities.

Dooley expressed his strong support for those bills a few weeks ago. But the council voted down Erby’s bill by a 4-2 margin to set up the Office of Diversity Programs. Erby and Stenger voted for that bill, while council members Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, voted against it.

Some council members – such as Wasinger and Dolan -- questioned why the bill was needed when Dooley already hired Robert Horton as the county’s diversity programs manager. O’Mara also questioned why Dooley hadn’t followed through a 2007 executive order aimed at increasing minority participation.

In response, Dooley responded: “Sometimes it’s good to be redundant, to reaffirm that you believe in something.”

“There’s nothing wrong with redundancy if it’s a point of reference. That’s a good thing,” Dooley said. “There’s a lot of things we do in life that is redundant, but it reminds us of the values of what we stand for.”

But the ill will among council members escalated further.

O’Mara wanted to change Erby’s legislation to require certain contractors to go through apprenticeship training. Both O’Mara and Dolan are members of labor unions, a group that’s expressed concern about minority participation goals in other jurisdictions, such as the Metropolitan Sewer District.

Erby contended that requiring apprenticeship training – especially for minority and female owned businesses -- would restrict “the very people that you represent.” 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio (file photo)
Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, is the only member of the council aligned with St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. She sparred with other council members on Tuesday over minority participation legislation.

“Who are you really training?” Erby said.

“We’re training apprentices,” O’Mara answered.

“Right, you train apprentices and when it comes time for them to go into the journeymen’s program, the unions laid them off – African-Americans, women and other minorities,” Erby said. “You lay them off. They never get to that point. This bill is to make sure that we level the playing field, which is not happening now, Mike, and you know it’s not.”

Dolan strongly disputed Erby’s contentions. He said his labor union – Sprinkler Fitters 268 – has notable participation from minorities and women.

“There is no getting trained and then not allowed employment,” Dolan said. “I am splitting time and working very few hours a week. And I know of minority brothers of mine who are working in the trades 40 hours a week. So to tell me that we don’t have diversity and inclusion would be a mistake because I live it.”

Stenger then interjected and said the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP supported O’Mara’s changes. Erby ultimately said: “Steve, at what point did you start taking so much interest in the St. Louis County NAACP?”

“Well, Hazel, I would hate to ask you this question as well, when did I start taking interest in them?” Stenger responded.

“I’m a member and I don’t know anything about you being there,” Erby said.

“For years. For years,” Stenger said. “And I just find it interesting the timing of all of this.”

Erby eventually shelved bills aimed at bolstering minority and female participation for county construction and purchasing contracts. After the meeting ended, Dooley made no effort to hide his frustration.

“Everybody’s talking about diversity these days, let’s see if we really mean what we say,” Dooley said. “Can we put it on the books? Can we put it in writing? Do we mean what really say when you’re talking about diversity and inclusion in St. Louis County for everybody? I’m just saying let’s stop talking about it and let’s do it.”

'All about Aug. 5'

This is the second week in a row council members clashed with Dooley over proposed legislation.In fact, Tuesday’s verbal melee arose a couple of hours after a skirmish between Stenger and Erby, the only council member to endorse Dooley’s re-election bid,over the Children’s Services Fund.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio (file photo)
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley contended his recent spats with the St. Louis County Council are all about Councilman Steve Stenger's primary challenge.

Dooley said he had no doubts that the fights were related to his primary fight with Stenger.

“All of this is Aug. 5,” Dooley said. “It’s the last eight weeks. Everybody’s trying to position themselves. Everybody’s talking about diversity. And my opponent talked about diversity and he don’t really mean it. Now come on, folks.”

When asked if he was trying to position himself as well for the primary – including introducing the minority participation legislation – Dooley responded: “I’m already positioned; I’ve been this way for 10 years in county government.”

And when asked why he didn’t push the issue sooner – especially since instituting workforce goals for MSD took years to implement – Dooley said: “We have tried to do those things, but it has to be a two-way street.”

Dooley talks with reporters after Tuesday's St. Louis County Council meeting.

“What people say and what people do are two different things,” Dooley said. “Let’s be clear about that. And I have been consistent about where I stand on diversity and inclusion. And I would debate that with anybody.”

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