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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

Federal Subpoena Issued Looking Into Stenger’s Administration

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger (left) and Sam Page (right) attend a county council meeting. A new resolution calls on the prosecuting attorney to look into if Stenger violated county charter.
File photo | Andy Field | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page, right, says a federal subpoena was issued seeking information about the administration of St. Louis County Executive Stever Stenger, left.

Updated 2:20 on Monday with news of St. Louis Economic Development Partnership subpoena.

A federal subpoena was issued last week seeking information about St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s administration.

One particular focus was how Stenger’s administration issued contracts, which has been a source of contention for months between the Democratic chief executive and the council.

Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that a federal grand jury issued a subpoena to St. Louis County. Page read the subpoena during a meeting with St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane last week. Among other things, the subpoena sought Stenger’s call history, texts and emails with employees regarding contracts.

The subpoena also requested information from seven members of Stenger’s staff and information on county contracts — including sale of Wellston industrial parksto people who contributed money to Stenger’s campaign. 

Page confirmed the subpoena information to St. Louis Public Radio on Sunday but was unavailable to talk further. Councilman Ernie Trakas said he spoke with Page about the subpoena shortly after his Friday meeting with Krane.

Trakas said that Page told him that subpoena also sought recordings and minutes from council meetings and hearings. Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, is the chairman of a committee looking into a deal to move some county operations to Northwest Plaza in St. Ann.

“[The subpoena] was directed to the county,” Trakas said. “The individuals named in the subpoena were clearly identified with respect to records in particular to them. There were also records and documents requested in the subpoena that go beyond just the Department of Administration — but to other departments in the county.”

In a statement issued on Monday morning, Stenger said "with respect to the issuance of a subpoena to county government, we intend to provide all of the information requested and cooperate fully." 

U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen said “as a matter of general policy, the United States Attorney’s office neither confirms nor denies investigations.”

Stenger’s adversaries have long accused him of granting contracts to campaign donors. For instance: Mark Mantovani made the Northwest Plaza deal a major emphasis of his unsuccessful 2018 Democratic primary campaign.

Stenger also came under fire for how he interacted with the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. In a statement released on Monday afternoon, Partnership Chairman Karlos Ramirez said his agency received a subpoena "seeking records from the Partnership and related entities."

"While we cannot comment on any particular investigation, we are committed to full cooperation with authorities and transparency with the public," Ramirez said. "We are proud that our organization is one of the first combined efforts of St. Louis city and St. Louis County, and are committed to ensuring we can focus on our mission in the most efficient and effective way possible."

Stenger has publicly denied giving out contracts based on whether someone donated to his campaign — most recently on a March 7 edition of St. Louis on the Air.

“Our government is not the first government where it’s part of our system of governance where we raise money as candidates,” Stenger said. “And in some cases, when you’re raising money in a local community and you’re raising $4.5 million — there’s simply going to be some overlap. But we have processes in place to ensure that no one is getting any inappropriate treatment. And that has never, ever been the case.”

Trakas, though, said this development is troubling for St. Louis County government.

“The ethics committee and the council have taken more than a little heat for its efforts in attempting to bring accountability and transparency to county government,” Trakas said. “So this subpoena validates the council and the committee’s concerns in those regards. I think I can certainly speak for myself and certainly the other members of the council that all of us expect the full and complete cooperation from the county executive’s office for the federal investigation.”

‘Something there for them to be concerned about’

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger takes the oath of office on Jan. 1, 2019.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Stenger was recently sworn in for a four-year term in January.

Before he was elected to the St. Louis County Council last year, Tim Fitch served as the county police chief and under then-County Executive Charlie Dooley’s tenure, talked to the FBI about an investigation intoa subcontract to build the county crime lab. While emphasizing he’s not seen the Stenger subpoena, Fitch said local authorities had to get approval from Washington, D.C., officials before doing anything on the crime lab contract, because it was dealing with an elected official.

“You can probably assume in this case, unless something has changed, that they had to tell the Department of Justice in Washington, ‘Here’s what we’ve got,’” said Fitch, R-St. Louis County. “And they had to approve any further action before subpoenas are issued and things like that.”

Fitch went on to say that if “they’re issuing subpoenas, there must be at least something there for them to be concerned about.”

“Because really, issuing the subpoenas is not the start of the investigation — it’s just part of the investigation,” Fitch said.

In the case of the crime lab, Fitch said there was a roughly eight-month time period between subpoenas being issued — and then-U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan deciding not to bring charges against Dooley or anyone in his administration.

“Typically when they issue subpoenas, they have some reason to believe there could be something amiss,” Fitch said. “However, as in the crime lab case, the U.S. Attorney, who was a Democrat and so was Charlie Dooley, basically said there wasn’t enough evidence to issue any charges on anybody. And what I had said back then, and I’ll say it again is any kind of investigation, this case included, it’s either to find if anyone violated any criminal laws or clear them of it.

“Just because you’re doing an investigation doesn’t mean they’re guilty of any crime violation,” he added.

Change in plans

Under Better Together's proposal, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger (right) would serve as the transitional mayor of a united St. Louis metro government until 2025, assuming he stays in office through January 2021.
Credit File photo I Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Under Better Together's proposal, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger would serve as the mayor of a united St. Louis metro government until 2025.

Page's revelation wasn't the only news story on Sunday that affects Stenger's political future.

Stenger was slated to become the first "metro mayor"under Better Together's plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County governments. The organizers of the merger effort purposefully made that office powerful.

But Better Together spokesman Ed Rhode said in a statement that under a new version of the plan set to be submitted to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's office, an election will be held for mayor in 2022. Under the original plan, Stenger was set to serve as mayor until the end of 2024.

“Over the last two months, we have received strong feedback at stakeholder meetings, public town halls, and on social media regarding the decision to hold the election for Metro Mayor in November 2024," Rhode said. "We listened and we have heard those concerns." 

Better Together executive director Nancy Rice told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the changes were not related to any of Stenger's potential legal problems. She cited Rev. Starsky Wilson's comments to St. Louis Public Radio as one aspect behind the change.

Wilson, the CEO of the Deaconess Foundation and co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission, laid out a slew of concerns he had with the merger plan — including its impact on black political power and the decision not to include schools.

He also contended it was deeply problematic that the first metro mayor, prosecutor and assessor will be county officials that city residents never elected. 

“Just on the democratic principle that this could pass and there could be elected leadership that people did not actually elect suggests that we would be operating at least in the transitional period under apartheid conditions,” Wilson said. “That a plurality black city that would still be a municipal corporation will be operating with governance that it did not elect, never had an opportunity to elect and does not reflect it demographically or politically. That is the definition of apartheid.”

Better Together’s organizers have said they picked Stenger because other city-county mergers, such as Louisville, had the person in charge of the larger jurisdiction lead the new government. And Stenger and other Better Together proponents have said it makes sense to have existing officials serve as the leaders of a new government. 

Rhode said "obviously, this is not a decision you make rashly or quickly."

"Rather, we have come to believe over time that the concerns expressed were reasonable, well-taken and needed to be addressed,” Rhode said.

Better Together is seeking to get its proposal on the 2020 statewide ballot. It will need to collect thousands of signatures across the state for Missourians to vote on the plan.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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