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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.

On the Trail: Tensions between Stenger, St. Louis County Council boil over with bridge dispute

Councilman Mark Harder's (left) bill aimed at replacing two bridges in western St. Louis County sparked a war of words between councilmembers and County Executive Steve Stenger.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Mark Harder's (left) bill aimed at replacing two bridges in western St. Louis County sparked a war of words between councilmembers and County Executive Steve Stenger.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger always was going to have a hard time getting along with most of the St. Louis County Council. After all, the county voters filled the majority of those seven seats with people who have longstanding disagreements with the Democrat.  

That expected acrimony has come to pass in the form of a dispute over replacing bridges, prompting some council members to question Stenger’s ability to effectively communicate with them.

“Being new on the council, I’m very surprised with how the relationship is between [the county executive] and our office. I would not have perceived it to be so separate,” Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, said. “The communication is not there. I talked to his staff more when I was a state rep than I was able to talk to them now.”

Stenger dismissed the idea that his office is being stingy with information, going on to call a majority of the council “dysfunctional.” He also said that public safety is in jeopardy if the bridge projects in the western part of the county don’t move forward.

“This is not an executive branch issue. We have four dysfunctional council members who are trying to play politics with bridge projects,” Stenger said. “And I will just say it to you bluntly: No one with a political brain or a brain would do this. It’s a very serious situation.”

Bridge too far?

For most of the year, council members have been divided over a multitude of issues: redeveloping Jamestown Mall, bringing in outside staff to write bills and picking a new county auditor. The last item has been especially contentious, as Stenger and a few council members are concerned that current Auditor Mark Tucker isn’t qualified.

St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page is a strong supporting of a prescription drug monitoring program.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur is one of the councilmembers who has sparred with Stenger in recent months.

The council’s latest fight is over stalled legislation aimed at replacing the Allen and Lewis Road bridges near Eureka.

Stenger and Councilman Mark Harder, a Ballwin Republican who quarreled with Stenger in the past, say the structures are dangerous. Stenger believes that four council members — Walton Gray, Hazel Erby, D-University City; Ernie Trakas, R-south St. Louis County; and Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur — are retaliating against Harder because he voted against Tucker’s appointment.

“They’re simply doing this out of political retribution. And you know, I’m going to say it. I think, frankly, there’s really almost a criminal element to this,” Stenger said. “You cannot take a public safety matter and turn it into politics.”

Page said the delay isn’t about politics, but about whether those bridges are a priority.

“There’s a lot of roads and bridges that need to be repaired in St. Louis County. And we need to march through that list in an organized and thoughtful manner,” he said.

Erby pointed to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report about whether one of the bridges is being repaired at behest of a political donor.

“So when we see something on the agenda that asks us to accept ownership and spend $2.5 million on a bridge, it made me stop and want to ask questions,” said Page, alluding to Harder's bill that would allow the county to start negotiating with property owners around the bridge to get the projects started. “When I stopped and asked a couple of questions, the response to that process was very vigorous and oppositional and angry. And that made me hesitate even more.”

Stenger disputed that he’s pushing the bridge project at behest of a donor, adding that the county’s transportation department wanted the bridges replaced before he took office as county executive. He also noted that the Lewis Road bridge leads to a golf course used by the public.

“The facts are that the bridges take traffic over a railroad crossing,” Stenger said. “And if someone is injured on the other side of those bridges and our emergency personnel can’t make it over the bridges or the response time is increased because they have to take an alternate route, we’re talking about lives that are in jeopardy.”

Talk of the council

At the center of all of this, Page said, is that Stenger isn’t being forthcoming. 

A St. Louis Public Radio file photo of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

For instance, Page said he’s had issues getting information about whether an opening in the county auditor’s office is allowed to be filled.

“When questions are raised about whether or not we’re spending our money appropriately and within our priorities, then I think it’s reasonable to stop and ask questions,” Page said. “And people of all political stripes have expressed concern about appearances of impropriety. And I’m going to side on the side of integrity and transparency and good government — and continue to ask questions.”

Erby, who’s been at odds with Stenger for years, said she felt he froze her out after she voted to bring in staffers to write legislation; Stenger vetoed that proposal.

“If you don’t vote the way he wants you to, you don’t have his ear,” Erby said. “You can’t work with him.”

Stenger, though, pushed back against the criticisms. With the bridges, council members who opposed the project didn’t contact transportation department or the budget office to get more information, he said. And withholding details on bills makes no sense, he argued, adding that “we want these things to pass — why would we not give that information to them?”

Harder said Stenger’s office has become more communicative: “We’ve just pushed on him hard enough to where he’s doing it, and that’s a good thing.”

Calling in state help

Stenger upped the ante against the council recently by requestingstate Auditor Nicole Galloway to look into, among other things, whether transportation projects are being voted down for political reasons. 

Credit File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
State Auditor Nicole Galloway

“I would like this audit to be conducted in as timely as a manner as possible, because I am concerned that the role politics plays in the process is putting public safety at risk,” Stenger said last week.

According to Galloway’s office, the council would have to pass a resolution or ordinance formally asking Galloway to perform an audit — and pay for all of it.

Page penned a letter to St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane, who deals with the county’s legal issues, asking some procedural questions about if the council would have to act for the audit to happen.

Page hasn’t talked to his legislative colleagues yet, but added “my understanding of the previous position that Council members have taken, I would expect a lot of support for the intervention of the state auditor.”

During a news conference asking for the audit, Stenger was asked whether he found it ironic that he was criticizing the council for not going along with his priorities, considering he lead a coalition that killed a lot of former executive Charlie Dooley’s priorities.

Stenger’s response? “No, I would look at it this way: What’s on my mind now is public safety.”

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

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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