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County Council to ask voters to restrict campaign donations

With elections looming, tensions continue between the St. Louis County Council and County Executive Stenger.
File photo I Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County voters will be asked in August whether to expand the County Council’s powers and impose campaign donation limits on candidates running for county offices.

The council gave final approval Tuesday to the proposed charter change, which embraces a number of issues.

Some provisions would increase the council’s powers over county spending and require that more details about county operations be posted online.

But it’s the campaign-finance limits that likely will grab the most public attention.

County and local candidates are not now covered by the restrictions imposed by Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment that passed in 2016 and limits donations to $2,600 per election for state or legislative candidates.

As a result, county and municipal candidates can accept contributions of any size.

The council wants voters to impose the same $2,600 limit on county candidates. The ballot proposal also would restrict donations when the council is considering contracts.

Councilman Ernie Trakas, a south county Republican, is the main sponsor. “There’s also provisions in there from a transparency standpoint for information to be posted on the county’s website,” he said.

Donors face restrictions on contracts

One provision would bar donors from bidding on county contracts if they have given money within the 90 days before the contract going out for bid.  Potential donors also couldn’t give money until 90 days after a contract has been awarded.

Trakas said he realized that such requirements might make it difficult for some potential donors or businesses seeking to obtain county contracts. But he contended that any inconvenience was worth it.

“I think the benefit of this ballot language, when it passes, far outweighs any occasional impediment to a developer,” Trakas said.

County Executive Steve Stenger has said he supports the campaign-finance proposal, and wish it had gone further. Stenger’s approval is not needed to get the provision on the ballot.

The council voted 6-1 for the ballot proposal. Councilman Pat Dolan, a Democrat from Richmond Heights, voted against it – but emphasized that he supports donation limits. Dolan said he objected to some of the other provisions, notably those that allow council oversight over various departments’ spending.

Council seeking own lawyer – sometimes

The council also voted 6-1, with Dolan objecting, to give final passage to a measure that will allow the council to hire its own outside lawyer for occasional matters.

Voter approval would be needed for the council to have its own staff lawyer, but Council Chairman Sam Page believes the council can legally hire its own attorneys for certain matters.

Several council members have chafed at having to rely on the county government staff lawyers who, in effect, are under the control of Stenger.

Council raises pay for some county workers

After months of lobbying from some county employees, the council gave final approval Tuesday to a bill that will increase salaries for about 100 employees who work at the county Justice Center – which includes the jail.

The workers had been excluded from raises awarded many county police months ago. The money is coming from Proposition P, a sales-tax increase that county voters approved last year to raise pay for law-enforcement personnel.

The council authorized a plan to spend about $600,000 for the additional raises. About half is going Health Department nurses who care for prisoners. The rest is for other Justice Center employees. All had failed to receive the 16 percent pay hikes that most police had received after voters approved a sales tax boost last year.

Stenger supports the pay increases.

Justice Center accountant Kerah Braxton thanked the council and Stenger shortly before the vote.

“We are looking forward to this night, being a night of victory for us and seeing the Bill 54 pass.”

Braxton had been among the affected workers who had shown up regularly at council meetings to complain that it was unfair that they had initially received raises of 3 percent, while working alongside colleagues who got the 16 percent raise.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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