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St. Louis County Council Still At A Standstill As Flood Of Public Comments Continues

St. Lous County Executive Sam Page spoke about the coronavirus outbreak on the Politically Speaking podcast on Wednesday, March 25, 2020
File photo / Bill Greenblatt
Some council members want to limit St. Louis County Executive Sam Page's emergency order authority through a pandemic.

Updated Oct. 16 with a recess until next week

The St. Louis County Council reconvened at 2 p.m. Friday to continue listening to public comments submitted from its meeting Tuesday. Comments were read until roughly 5 p.m.

The council then recessed for the weekend until 1 p.m. Monday, at which point the reading of comments will continue.

Updated Oct. 15 with another recess until Friday

The St. Louis County Council reconvened at 3 p.m. Thursday to continue listening to public comments submitted from its meeting Tuesday. Comments were read until roughly 4:30 p.m. before the council had to recess.

Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, Councilwoman Rita Heard Days and Councilman Ernie Trakas all had to leave the meeting for other commitments.

Councilman Mark Harder experienced significant technical difficulties with the virtual meeting, causing him to sometimes be cut out, and Councilman Tim Fitch was scheduled to leave at 5 p.m. Because council meetings cannot continue without at least four members present, Chairwoman Lisa Clancy declared a recess until 2 p.m. Friday, when point the reading of comments will continue.

Updated Oct. 14 with comments continuing

The St. Louis County Council reconvened at noon Wednesday to continue listening to public comments submitted for its meeting Tuesday. Comments were read until 6 p.m.

Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, then declared the council would recess until 3 p.m. Thursday, at which point the reading of comments will continue.

Original story from Oct. 13:

You can call it the never-ending St. Louis County Council meeting.

Or, more accurately, the St. Louis County Council meeting with a public comment section that could go on for nearly five days.

That’s not a typo. Tuesday’s meeting featured 2,230 comments submitted both for and against legislation up for final passage to curb County Executive Sam Page’s emergency order powers. While the proposals that are sponsored by the council’s three Republicans differ in the details, they more or less would require members to vote on letting Page continue to have emergency power during a pandemic.

Proponents of the emergency power legislation contend that Page needs more oversight from the county council when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Opponents say that taking away Page’s power on the issue could lead to elimination of needed public health restrictions, such as the county’s mask mandate. They also question whether such a proposal is even legal and whether it would mire the county in litigation over the matter.

Unlike prior meetings in which the council voted to limit comments to two hours and then put the rest in a written record, the council voted to have staff continue to read comments aloud until 10:30 p.m. for a meeting that started at 6:30 — and then reconvene at 1 p.m. Wednesday. If the council follows through on reading all the comments and they average around three minutes, it will take nearly 4.7 days without interruption for staffers to read them all.

“It is true that because of the time limits many comments have not been read, and due to the high volume of comments the council staff is about three weeks behind in preparing their journals,” said Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood. “I do think each of our constituents deserves to be heard, and that's why tonight I can't support ending the comments. But I would support recessing and reconvening as many times as it takes to make sure that all voices are heard.”

Added Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack: “I expected to get the journal, and to be able to read other comments ... but that hasn't happened.”

Councilman Ernie Trakas, who has sponsored one of the bills aimed at Page’s emergency powers, has spoken out against limiting public comments at previous hearings. The south St. Louis County Republican said on Tuesday that “it's simply unfair to not hear all the voices and hear all the positions that are citizens of St. Louis County.”

Some proponents of limiting the comments contended that reading them aloud without end was merely a tactic to delay the bills from being sent to Page’s desk.

“We've heard a real good sampling of probably everybody that sent in comments pro and con,” said Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County.

“You know this is a classic filibuster,” he added after the meeting. “You call it what you want. They're using the people to filibuster this thinking that somebody will wear down and either drop the legislation or change the legislation.”

Fitch is one of the sponsors of legislation that would have a county executive’s emergency powers expire after 15 days. He said the county executive would have to persuade two-thirds of the council to continue to give him that power, which he said provides council members with an opportunity to ask questions about the executive branch’s strategies.

Yet the unprecedented amount of public input may be on an issue that never becomes law. That’s because Page signaled he would veto the measures if they made it to his desk.

“If we become reckless in our response here, our actions can overburden hospitals, adversely affect treatment and endanger our health care workers,” Page said. “Bills before the council tonight do nothing to improve the public health and safety. The St. Louis County residents' evolving political opinion is not good leadership. Public health orders are not always popular, but they save lives.”

It’s unclear whether proponents of curbing Page’s emergency powers have five votes to override a veto. Only four council members voted for Fitch’s legislation earlier this year. But that might change after the end of the year when at least one new member, Shalonda Webb, joins the council.

“I don’t see any more purpose of causing any more consternation with the public in this particular issue,” Fitch said. “Let’s vote it up or down, veto it or not, and let’s move on.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Becca is an intern with St. Louis Public Radio.