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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Dooley Once Again Embroiled In Debate Over County Parks

Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
The 2011 battle over proposed cuts to St. Louis County Parks is receiving attention again thanks to ads from Councilman Steve Stenger.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley has claimed in recent weeks that he never proposed shutting down county parks in 2011. But now, as the issue begins to heat up again, Dooley is, in his own words, "walking back" from his comments.

Dooley told St. Louis Public Radio that he “never proposed shutting down anything,” adding that “people will be saying things every election cycle about Charlie Dooley. Just because they say it doesn’t make it so.”

Dooley is having to respond to the 2011 parks controversy again after Councilman Steve Stenger started airing television ads on the subject.  Stenger's campaign sees the issue as one of the best ways to attack Dooley's credibility, because of the uproar that occurred at the time.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
After controversy erupted over his initial 2011 budget proposal aroused, County Executive Charlie Dooley withdrew it, replacing with a plan that didn't shut down any of the county's parks but did reduce services and staff.

In 2011, a languishing economy and tightening county revenue prompted Dooley to propose cutting more than $4 million to the parks budget. The plan also included well over 100 layoffs in the county parks department.

“There is no joy in indicating that there’s a possible layoff for anybody’s job or closing anybody’s park,” Dooley said in 2011. “Because they’re my parks as well.”

Dooley’s initial budget in 2011 would haveshut down 23 of the county’s parks -- not to mention one community center, and all [three] county-operated swimming pools.A map on page 216 of the budget plan shows where the “park closures” would occur: Lone Elk Park, Greensfelder Park and Fort Bellefontaine.

Dooley’s proposed budget was, to put it mildly, very controversial: Hundreds of people filled the St. Louis County Council chambers to protest, includingstatewide and national park groups. Even Gov. Jay Nixon and House Speaker Tim Jones got involved.

Dooley speaks during the 2011 budget battle, saying there was “no joy in indicating that there’s a possible layoff for anybody’s job or closing anybody’s park."

Dooley ultimately withdrew his original budget and submitted a new one with no parks closures, although it  did include reductions in services and staff. Months later, Dooley supported a successful effort – known as Proposition P – that infused more sales tax dollars into the county’s parks system.

Dooley has described the sequence of events much differently. This is what he said during his March appearance on St. Louis Public Radio’s Politically Speaking podcast.

“During this time between 2008 and 2011 or so, it is the worst economic times in this country’s history since the Great Depression. And we all know that. And we were making adjustments to that situation. Now, first of all, we never proposed closing anything. What we talked about was reducing services. That’s what we talked about. And that’s what we actually did until times got better. And times are better now, then we bring those services back online.”

Dooley made a similar remark to KMOX last week in responding to Stenger’s recent television ads.Dooley told the radio station that “claims that he tried to close county parks were false.”

Walking back

Stenger remembers the episode differently. He was, after all, chairman of the county council at the time. The ensuing clash prompted speculation that Stenger would challenge Dooley. 

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger talks to St. Louis Public Radio reporters Nov. 5, 2014, during a recording of the 'Politically Speaking' podcast.
Credit Chris McDaniel, St. Louis Public Radio.
St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, was chairman of the St. Louis County Council during the parks controversy. His clash with Dooley sparked speculation that he would run for county executive.

At the time, Stenger called Dooley’s initial budget proposal “the most ill-conceived proposal I have ever heard of, read about or even thought about." His opinion of the measure hasn’t changed that much.

“To lose half of those parks and what that would mean to the families in St. Louis County; it’s just something you can’t afford to lose,” Stenger said during his Politically Speaking podcast appearance.

After last week’s council meeting, Dooley was asked whether the comments he made to St. Louis Public Radio and KMOX were accurate. At first, he responded: “This is what I said. We never closed any parks. No parks in St. Louis County were closed.”

After last week's St. Louis County Council meeting, Dooley "walked back" from his comments that he made on Politically Speaking and to KMOX.

“Now it was, when our parks director had indicated, she proposed that,” Dooley said. “And the council didn’t do it. They didn’t want to do it. I had to come back and redo it and do it again. And balance the budget and make it work.”

When Dooley was reminded of his statement on the Politically Speaking that “we never proposed closing anything,” he eventually said: “I’m going to walk back… on this one.”

“From my point of view is that people say we closed down parks. First of all, we did not close them down,” Dooley said. “That’s what people said: We closed down parks. St. Louis County did not close down parks. But what I did say was there are parks in St. Louis County that have never been opened that are closed right now. There are parks that have never been opened. I’ve always said that.”

Dooley also pushed back at the assertion that he proposed selling parks in 2011. But the county's chief operating officer Garry Earls talked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in November 2011 about selling Lone Elk Park and even selling its animals to zoos.Earls also broached the possibility of turning parks over to municipalities, a move that could include some sort of financial transaction between jurisdictions.

When this reporter asked Dooley if he would acknowledge that his statement about how he “never proposed shutting down anything” was not accurate, he responded: “That is true.”

Big picture

Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis,  said that Stenger’s focus on the parks “lays an important foundation for Stenger’s argument that Dooley is not a reliable steward of the county.” 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
A group of bison rest at Lone Elk Park, one of St. Louis County's largest parks.

He said it reminds people of other controversies surrounding Dooley’s administration over the last several years.

"The fact is that controversy spread to a lot of parts of the county," Robertson said, "And Stenger participated in that as a member of the council and could see how much of a negative reaction there was to the park proposal. This ad is meant to resurrect the feelings of those people who are very angry about that, including the central part of the county — but also potential Democratic voters all over the place that might be inclined to think twice about voting for Dooley" again.

As for Dooley’s statements about “never proposing to shut down anything,” Robertson ascribes that to the incumbent “trying to put the issue in the most positive light and to respond to the steady drumbeat of ads that remind people of the controversy in the first place.” 

“Stenger has filled in the narrative to begin with," Robertson said. "And Dooley’s going to be in a position where he’s going to have to respond to these things and defend himself. And any candidate who has to go on the defensive is in a position that she or he doesn’t want to be in, because they want to be assertive about what they’re going to do over the next few years.”

“He may be trying to refute this a bit on the fly and create another narrative,” he added. “But his narrative is being drowned out by the Stenger ads at this point.”

Proposition power

Any uncertainty over parks funding was greatly alleviated after voters approved Proposition P, which raised sales taxes in St. Louis and St. Louis County by three-sixteenths of 1 percent.  

Roughly $6 million of the tax’s proceeds goes to St. Louis County parks. That money has been used for, among other things, long-needed maintenance and repair projects throughout the county’s system.

Dooley supported Proposition P, which passed somewhat narrowly in St. Louis County. Stenger voted with other members of the council to put the tax increase on the April 2013 ballot.

“St. Louis County makes the difficult decisions to invest in themselves,” said Dooley during Politically Speaking. “And I think we made the right decisions. We are regional leaders. We want the region to be the best it can be. And the way it can be the best it can be is where the leadership says ‘this is for our future, for our children, we need these infrastructure to advance our community. And that’s what we’ve done.”

When asked if Dooley deserved credit for helping Proposition P pass, Stenger said on the podcast that getting the measure over the finish line was a “joint effort.”

“I think everyone agreed that Prop P needed to pass,” Stenger said. “Parks are a real attractor. Not only do the residents of St. Louis County get to enjoy them and not only do we all get to enjoy them, but it’s also an attractor when people look to whether they want to locate their business here, whether they want to live here or whether they want to move here."

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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