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Stenger's first 100 days fit in with his quest for a new county direction

Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton
Parth Shah | St. Louis Public Radio file photo

During his first 100 days in office, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger  has attracted more attention for what he won’t do.

  • He won’t advocate for some sort of reunification of the city of St. Louis with St. Louis County.
  • The county won’t help bankroll some of the costs of a proposed new stadium.

But Stenger prefers instead to focus primarily on what he has done – which, he says, includes fulfilling his campaign promises.
"We have dealt with all the major issues that I raised during the campaign and all of the action items that I wanted to take action on, we’ve taken action on all of those, and we’ve done that within 100 days,” Stenger said in an interview. “My staff and I have worked very hard to make sure that we’ve done that.”

Those actions include :

  • Beginning the process for a top-down audit of county-government spending;
  • Reorganizing the county’s Children’s Services Fund;
  • Creating a new Office of Community Empowerment, charged with dealing with the county’s low-income neighborhoods and attracting more economic development to those areas. The office also is heavily involved in the county’s response to the Ferguson unrest, which had resulted in the destruction of some local businesses.

Stenger says he’s particularly proud of the Office of Community Empowerment, which he says will be key in rebuilding – physically and emotionally – the parts of north St. Louis County hit hardest by last year’s protests.
“I think over the long haul, what’s more important is that the Ferguson-Dellwood community is not defined by the events of last summer,” he said. “That it’s defined by, instead, the revitalization of the area, and the community coming together to participate in that revitalization and regrowth.”

Stenger’s response in Ferguson could be key to his own political image as well, which took a beating last fall because of his ties to County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who oversaw the grand-jury investigation into the Aug. 9 police shooting that ignited the protests.

But publicly, anyway, the political aspects of that episode don’t appear to be much on Stenger’s mind.

New approach, new challenges

With 100 days under his belt, Stenger’s actions have made clear that he’s setting a course far different from fellow Democrat Charlie Dooley, who held the county’s top job for 11 years.

Stenger’s defeat of Dooley in last summer’s primary followed by his narrow victory last fall over Republican Rick Stream were unquestionably the region’s most acrimonious contests of 2014.

The county executive celebrated his fist 100 days with a home-baked cake.
Credit Provided by the county executive's staff
The county executive celebrated his fist 100 days with a home-baked cake.

But politically, the fallout from those contests may have been less than some activists had expected. Democrat Kevin O’Leary’s capture last Tuesday of Stenger’s old County Council seat was seen as a coup for Democrats, a serious defeat for Republicans, and a boost to Stenger’s political stature.

O’Leary’s win means that Democrats will retain a 5-2 edge on the County Council, which virtually guarantees that Stenger’s agenda will have a friendly audience.

Although Stenger denies any involvement in O’Leary’s campaign, several of his former campaign staffers had been in charge of O’Leary’s operation. Stenger did say that he has a high regard for O’Leary and is glad that he won.

Stenger says he’s been focused on his own job. And since taking office on Jan. 1, there’s little question that he quickly put his own stamp on the region’s top office.

Publicly, Stenger appears to be adopting a lower profile than Dooley, who was known for showing up at almost every major public event.

Stenger says he’s engaged in public appearances almost every night. But during the day, he acknowledges that he’s usually in his office.

“I would characterize myself as hands on, so I have less time to get out," Stenger said.

For example: Stenger doesn’t have a chief of staff.

“There’s really not a gatekeeper to me" to restrict access, he said. “I have a much more of what I’d call a ‘flat organization.’ “

Stenger says he has a group of staff members who operate like a “joint chiefs,” each of whom answers directly to him. 

He recently shifted the county’s budget director so that person reports directly to Stenger rather than to another aide, as had been the case.

The upshot is that Stenger appears to have involvement in almost any decision made by his administration.

Merger and Rams

Stenger recently ordered that his name be removed as an ex officio board member of Better Together, a privately funded group that is studying ways that consolidation of some regional services could save money and improve coordination. 

Stenger says his action shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that he’s opposed to some cooperative city-county efforts, such as the joint economic council.

Referring to Better Together, Stenger said, “that organization, it’s anticipated that they’re going to make a series of proposals related to consolidations and merger. I need to remain independent, and I need to remain objective.’’

Remaining on its board, he said, would have implied approval of whatever Better Together proposed.

As for the proposed new stadium, Stenger said that it was Gov. Jay Nixon’s decision that county money would not be needed to make the plan work. “It was the governor’s decision to sort of move forward without the county’s participation,” Stenger said. “That was not something where I pulled our participation. That was not the situation.”

Stenger said he gets along well with Nixon. As for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, the county executive said, “We talk regularly, and we see each other at a number of civic functions. We get along quite well.”

Slay offered a similar assessment, adding that he wasn’t concerned about the county’s involvement in the new stadium as long as St. Louis County fulfilled its financial commitments to the existing Edward Jones Dome and the convention center.

“I don’t begrudge the county executive for the position he’s taken,” Slay said. “We don’t need the county money, so that’s OK.”

Stenger said the county will certainly comply with the deal that requires it to pay $6 million a year for the dome/convention center through 2021, and $1 a year for three years thereafter.

Pat White, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, says there’s no tension with Stenger over the stadium issue. Labor’s support for Stenger had been key to his victories last year over Dooley and Stream. But labor is a strong supporter of the proposed stadium.

White said there were no hard feelings, since Stenger had made clear months ago that he wouldn’t support more public money for a new stadium without a public vote.

Some close to Stenger say his stances on any merger or new stadium fit in with his past, and with his longtime image as a conservative Democrat. "If you look at his brand, this fits right in,” one Democrat said privately. “From a policy standpoint, he's doing what his base wants."

Stenger insists that politics play no role in his decision-making. "The decisions I made weren't decisions I made to prove a point,'' he said. "They were decisions I made because I believe they were the best under the circumstances and considering all the facts I had available at the time."

Camille Phillips contributed to this report.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.