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St. Louis County Voters To Decide Whether To Give The Council Its Own Attorney

Members of the St. Louis County Council meet on March 28, 2019, to discuss whether outside attorneys should be brought in to respond to a federal subpoena.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the St. Louis County Council meet on March 28, 2019, to discuss whether outside attorneys should be brought in to respond to a federal subpoena.

St. Louis County residents will vote Tuesday once again on whether to give the county council its own an attorney, an outgrowth of a longstanding fight between council members and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

But detractors of the idea don’t believe it will actually change much, since the council’s attorney would still report to a county executive appointee.

Council members placed a charter amendment on the April 2 ballot effectively splitting the county counselor’s office into three divisions. Attorneys would represent the executive, legislative and judicial branches of county government.

For months, council members have had a tense relationship with St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane. They contend it’s a conflict of interest for the council to have an attorney that the county executive appoints when the two branches often have differing ideas about governance.

The council placed a charter amendment on the ballot last year allowing the council to have its own attorney, but voters narrowly defeated the measure.

Proponents of this charter amendment hope it will settle the dispute. Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said earlier this year that the amendment would “clarify the question of who the client is.

“There’s a concept in, in the provision of legal services, that a wall is built and a duty exists to the client,” said Page during a meeting earlier this year. “And the issue we currently have is the question of who the client is.”

But some of Page’s colleagues believe this proposal has a fatal flaw: Even if there’s a dedicated attorney for the council, that person would still report to the county executive-appointed county counselor.

“Who will give him his pay raises? Who will give that counselor evaluations?” said Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County. “It’s still the county counselor appointed by the county executive. So in other words, it does nothing.”  

Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, agreed with those sentiments, even though he voted to put the charter amendment up for a vote.

“The council still needs independent advice from its own counsel,” Trakas said. “And, like it or not, whoever is assigned to the council still works under the county counselor, who is, by the charter, appointed and serves at the pleasure of the county executive.”

The vote comesas a charter commission is examining whether to change the county’s governing document. That 14-member panel has up to two years to complete its work.

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.