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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

St. Louis County Council Divide May Not Close Even After Leadership Fight Is Decided

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio

If there’s been one constant over the past 10 years or so in St. Louis County government, it’s that there’s often a visible divide between the county executive and the county council.

That was the case during the waning days of Charlie Dooley and Steve Stenger’s county executive tenure, and it’s the same now with Sam Page.

But while county council meetings during the 2010s weren’t exactly friendly tea parties, the ones that have taken place in January have been downright uncomfortable to watch — with acrimony reaching such elevated levels that it’s affected the flow of county business.

Although this particular rancor revolved around the relatively routine move of picking leadership of the council, it’s part of a deeper conflict over council members’ support or opposition to Page’s reign — especially when it comes to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not necessary against the county executive,” said Councilwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, who was most recently chosen to lead the council. “It’s against some of the policies and some of things that he’s put forth with no inclusion from the council. And I think that’s not a good way to govern. We have a legislative body. And that’s what they’re designed to do.”

Even after the dispute over who chairs the council is resolved, there’s no guarantee the divide will dissipate — especially since Page and the county council will be in office for at least the next two years.

“We’re going to need to figure out how we’re going to move forward no matter what the outcome of this is,” said Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, the other contender for the chair. “And I don’t know what that looks like yet. But I know that our constituents have tall orders for us right now when it comes to recovering from the virus and doing the things that we need to do to make sure that St. Louis County is the best it can be.”

St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy (left) and County Councilman Ernie Trakas (center) both have proposals to change the county's panhandling regulations.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, speaks during a 2019 meeting. Clancy served as chairwoman in 2020 and won another term before her reelection was nullified. Clancy has said that move to strip her of her leadership position was illegal, and the matter is now in court.

Chairwoman controversy

The most recent episode that derailed council business has roots back to two votes during the August 2020 primary.

The first was in the north St. Louis County-based 4th District, where Shalonda Webb defeated incumbent Rochelle Walton Gray in the Democratic primary. Gray was one of Page’s most staunch allies on the council and even nominated the Democratic official to be county executive in 2019. Webb said she’s not coming into office as a clear vote for or against Page — but rather a voice for her north St. Louis County district.

At the same time Webb was elected, voters in St. Louis County also chose to alter the charter to move the swearing-in date of elected officials from Jan. 1 to Jan. 12. It left in place a requirement for the council to vote on its chair and vice chair at its first January meeting. On the last meeting of 2020, a majority of council members — Clancy; Gray; Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield; and Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County — voted to have a meeting on Jan. 5.

Webb was especially outspoken against that move. She said that letting her defeated predecessor decide on who leads the council for the next year disenfranchised her constituents.

Former St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby congratulates Rita Days, a former state lawmaker who will fill Erby's 1st District seat on the council. Aug. 6, 2019
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Councilwoman Rita Days, right, listens to Hazel Erby after she was elected in 2019 as the 1st District's councilwoman. Days became more critical of County Executive Sam Page over the past year, contending he hasn't done enough to help the county's large African American community.

“That doesn’t sit well with our community,” Webb said. “They have been very vocal to me. And I cannot be passive and say, ‘I’ve earned your trust and your vote. This disturbs you and I stay silent.’ Because it’s not fair. It’s not right.”

Ultimately, Webb joined Days; Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County; and Mark Harder, R-Ballwin; in ousting Clancy and Trakas from their leadership positions on Jan. 12. Days was elected chairwoman, and Harder was elected vice chairman at a subsequent meeting. The issue, which is now in court, was so explosive that the council abruptly adjourned the Jan. 12 meeting. Days chaired this past Tuesday’s meeting that ended up proceeding without incident.

Among other things, the four-person majority rejected the argument that Gray was still a council member on Jan. 5 and could vote in any leadership election. Clancy, Dunaway and Trakas say Gray still was in office on Jan. 5. And they counter that there’s no mechanism to oust a chair or vice chair, adding that they believe they’re following the charter correctly.

Page has made it clear that he believes Clancy and Trakas are the rightful chair and vice chair. As of Friday morning, the case is pending in court.

Putting aside the legal arguments, numerous supporters of Webb have contended that Clancy and allies have a shaky moral argument in allowing a lame-duck council member to decide on the leadership of a council they won’t serve on. They also point out that this entire fight could have been avoided if the first meeting of the year was moved to Jan. 12, something that Harder unsuccessfully sought at the end of 2020.

“Every other legislative body in the state of Missouri would not approve new leaders with the old, lame-duck council people or state representatives or state senators from the past administration,” Harder said in December. “They always vote for the leadership of the new caucus or the new legislative branch.”

Clancy said in December that she questioned "how prudent it is to postpone county business for a week, especially in the middle of a global health crisis that has hit our community pretty hard." She said earlier this week that she understands why some people think the entire situation “feels unfair.”

“I acknowledge what Councilwoman Webb has addressed and raised on behalf of her constituents in the 4th District, which honestly includes questions that have been raised by everyone in St. Louis County right now,” Clancy said. “It’s not unusual for a lame duck elected official to make decisions in an elected body that they are soon going to be vacating.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announces that some county parks will be reopened on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
File photo | David Kovaluk I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Sam Page's COVID-19 response has faced bipartisan criticism over the past year.

Not-so-new divide

While the chair can organize committees or rule on procedural matters, they don’t have unilateral power to decide the trajectory of legislation if they don’t have three other people backing them up.

Days said the chair played a big role in setting the agenda, adding that the 1st District hasn’t served as the council leader since 2014. Clancy said the chair “has a very important pulpit to speak from when it comes to the policy vision in St. Louis County.”

In many respects, the fight over who leads the county council is part of a larger schism between Page and a majority of the council.

With the election of Webb, Page went from having most of the council on his side at the beginning of his tenure to only having two members (Dunaway and Clancy) who are reliable allies.

Days initially supported some of Page’s initiatives, including a move to give him decision-making authority over spending COVID-19 funds. But Days, the first Black person ever elected to the Missouri Senate from St. Louis County, became disillusioned with Page’s leadership, especially on racial equity issues. She was upset that he fired her predecessor, Hazel Erby, from a diversity leadership position. And she was dismayed that a police board that Page appointed picked a chief who didn’t acknowledge systemic racism existed in her department.

“I went along with Sam because I believed what he was saying to me,” Days said. “I believed that he would be looking more closely at the vulnerable communities which I serve. I believed he would make sure that the resources were distributed according to need. I believed that because that’s what he said. So when most of that did not come to fruition, I was not happy.”

While Page won his Democratic primary fairly comfortably over three other candidates, he lost several majority Black townships in Days’ 1st District. Numerous Black municipal officials ended up supporting either St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman or businessman Mark Mantovani.

Clancy said that much of the rancor that’s seen on the council amounts to a proxy war between Page allies and adversaries.

“It’s about whether or not you agree with how the county executive has made policy decisions over the past year,” Clancy said. “And those policy decisions, at the most controversial, have been about public health orders.”

Indeed, many of Page’s most boisterous critics are Republicans who don’t like his COVID-19 restrictions — especially when it comes to things like restaurants. Both Days and Fitch have said their criticism of Page’s COVID-19 response is not about whether restrictions are needed, but rather whether the council should have oversight.

What's ahead

The two council members to watch over the next two years could be Trakas and Webb.

While Trakas has strongly sided with Clancy in her bid to retain the chairwoman position, he’s often diverged from Page on big issues — most notably the vote to give him power over dispersing COVID-19 funds. He said during an episode of Politically Speaking last year that he’s not going to be a “rubber stamp” for Page.

Webb stressed that while she’s disappointed with how the leadership election played out, she’s not going to let it determine how she votes on other issues.

“I was very adamant: I’m talking about doing the business and having an effective council,” Webb said. “I want to build coalitions. I want to make sure that we are a good governing body for the people that we represent. And things like this only split us. But I will not allow this to cause discord where we cannot work and be effective.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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