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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.

New St. Louis County Executive Starts To Clean House, Questions Statewide Vote On City-County Merger

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page prepares to answer questions from reporters on April 30, 2019.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page prepares to answer questions from reporters on April 30, 2019.

Less than 24 hours after being named St. Louis County Executive, Sam Page is already erasing some of his predecessor’s mark on government.

And in a wide-ranging meeting with reporters Tuesday afternoon he expressed serious concerns about the proposal to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County, an opinion that could impact the creation of a metro government — and Page’s political future.

Page spent more than 30 minutes answering an array of questions, including his motivations for taking the county executive’s post and his general plans for leading county government. The St. Louis County Council voted for Page to take over the post through 2020 after Steve Stenger suddenly resigned on Monday following his indictment on federal public corruption charges.

While not disclosing which specific employees had departed, Page said that some of the people who served in Stenger’s administration left county government.

“There have been some resignations, and there may be more — especially in the inner circle of the former county executive,” Page said. “But I think it’s fair to them to let them notify their families today and try to be professional about what is essentially a personnel issue.”

Page added that former St. Louis Counselor Winston Calvert would serve as his chief of staff. He also said that Mike Chapman, who left Stenger’s administration, would return as the county’s director of operations — and that Garry Earls would, at least for the time being, be chief operating officer. Earls had a major role in former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley’s administration — and was a target for immense criticism from Stenger and his allies.

“Some of the people who were critical of him and saw what happened since he’s been gone — and have said they wish they had him back,” Page said. “But regardless, he knows how to make county government run. He’s good at what he did. He ruffled some feathers. But I think he’ll be good in a situation where we need to get the county government running again in the right direction.”

Page also said that he would be reviewing county contracts — and make appointments to key boards, such as the one that oversees the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. He also pledged to have a better working relationship with the county council than his predecessor. Stenger and most of the council had been at extreme odds after the 2016 election saw two of his allies replaced with adversaries.

With a special election looming in 2020, Page didn’t commit to running to serve out the rest of Stenger’s term. But he did reflect on why he ended up accepting the position, especially since it meant giving up his lucrative job as an anesthesiologist.

“Public service is a sacrifice,” Page said. “Everyone who is in elected office sacrifices financially and with their time for the opportunity to serve,” said Page, who added he would be taking a leave of absence from his practice soon. “Actually it was a conversation with my wife that changed my mind. She said, 'The county is a mess, and you know more about it than anyone. And you should go and try to help fix it.’”

Page dislikes statewide vote on merger

Washington University outgoing Chancellor Mark Wrighton (right) will lead an effort to implement Better Together's recommendations for a St. Louis city-county merger. He spoke at a press conference Jan. 28, 2019 at the Cheshire hotel.
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University outgoing Chancellor Mark Wrighton speaks at the unveiling of the Better Together merger proposal on Jan. 28, 2019.

Page also answered several questions on what could be the biggest issue of his tenure as county executive — the proposed merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County.

While emphasizing that he wasn't going to comment on the Better Together plan until he met with the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, Page said he wasn’t enthused by how the proposal is going to statewide voters — as opposed to just city and county residents. Better Together’s organizers say the statewide vote is necessary to consolidate police departments and municipal courts.

“I guess my position on city-county merger, city-county working together is that it’s a missed opportunity and now’s the time to have this conversation. Right now,” Page said. “But I don’t believe that a process that does not leave this decision to St. Louis County voters and St. Louis City voters is the right process.”

If it passes, Page could make big decisions about how to follow through on the Better Together plan if he’s elected beyond 2020.

Also, the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis is trying to require Page and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson to appoint what’s been historically known as the Board of Freeholders. That entity could potentially produce a merger plan that gets voted on by city and county residents. And while it was widely assumed that Stenger and Krewson would appoint people who wouldn't create a competing plan to Better Together, that’s not a sure thing with Page in office.

Ed Rhode, a spokesman for the campaign committee that was created to pass the Better Together plan, said in a statement Monday “while the reunification effort is unaffected by today’s development, we do believe that it underscores the need for change and the potential benefit of reforming and streamlining St. Louis government.”

Merger opponents like Councilman Ernie Trakas, though, said Stenger’s departure as county executive should make the public think twice about supporting the merger. The south St. Louis County Republican noted the plan had Stenger serving as the powerful metro mayor for four years — a plan that was changed after a county subpoena of the Stenger administration was publicly revealed.

“Like it or not, Better Together cannot escape its embracing of Steve Stenger as its designated and anointed mega mayor,” Trakas said. “That, at a minimum, screams poor judgment and ill-advised preparation.”

Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones said Page needs to take a stronger and clearer stance on the merger. Along with other black municipal officials, Jones contends that the proposal will hurt African American political power — especially since the Better Together plan will create a majority white voting jurisdiction.

“We should have been made aware, as voters of St. Louis County, what Sam Page’s vision and what his stance on this Better Together proposal is,” Jones said. “That makes a big difference if he’s going to have my community supporting him — or Jennings or Normandy or whatever — we must know Sam Page’s stance. And right now, we just don’t know that.”

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said she didn’t know how Page would end up affecting the merger debate, adding that she believes he takes a region-wide approach to problem-solving.

“I think a lot of us share some concerns about the Better Together recommendations,” said Clancy, D-Maplewood. “Time will tell how this shakes out in terms of the dynamics now with this conversation and how it moves forward now that we have a significant change in the cast of characters involved.”

Public speaks out

The St. Louis Council convened on April 30, 2019, to hear from the public about Page's selection as county executive.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Council convened on April 30, 2019, to hear from the public about Page's selection as county executive.

Tuesday was the first council meeting since Page took office. It was the first chance for the public to speak out on the council’s appointment.

Even while congratulating Page on his new post, some of the speakers were upset that he was selected over Councilwoman Hazel Erby — a University City Democrat who opposed Stenger’s agenda throughout his entire tenure in office. Some speakers believed that the council missed an opportunity to appoint a woman to serve as a countywide official in St. Louis County for the first time.

Others questioned why the council made the decision on Monday, as opposed to a regular council meeting Tuesday where a public forum was held.

“I do have some reservations about how this played out,” said Pine Lawn resident Tashonda Troupe. “I know you know the people questioned why we didn’t get a chance to have a voice before you were sworn into that seat.”

St. Louis County’s charter calls for the council to fill a vacancy in the county executive’s office.

Clancy said the council needed to act swiftly to fill the void left by Stenger’s departure. But she said she understood why people were questioning the council’s decision-making.

“There is still quite a bit of mistrust in the way business is done in our region and the way business is done in county government,” she said. “And that’s not something you can change instantly with just one decision or just one night.”

For his part, Page made a point to praise Erby — emphasizing that the two have worked closely together on a host of issues. He said at Tuesday’s meeting that she was the first to “sound the alarm” about corruption in county government.

He also predicted that Erby would remain an integral partner in overhauling county government  

“Hazel has always been a very close friend of mine — probably my closest friend on the council,” Page said. “And it’s difficult to be in a position where we have a different opinion. It’s a rare event. But I do believe I have a record to stand on for working for the residents of North County. And I hope to expand on that. I think we’ll see a new commitment from the county executive’s office to work on issues that are important to North County.”

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.