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St. Louis County Council fights over masking at its own meeting

Members of the St. Louis County Council sparred on Oct. 19, 2021, over whether masks should be worn in chambers.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Council listens to public comment Tuesday. Council Chairwoman Rita Days and Councilwoman Lisa Clancy clashed over following the indoor mask mandate at the meeting.

Longstanding tensions between two Democratic members of the St. Louis County Council came to a head Tuesday over whether the county’s indoor mask mandate should apply to the council’s meeting.

Since late September, St. Louis County has required masks to be worn indoors as a way to combat COVID-19. But the face covering order does not have an enforcement mechanism.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Lisa Clancy made two motions for the mask order to be enforced in chambers. In addition to pointing out that the county agenda states that masks are required in council chambers, Clancy added that she “joined in-person meetings tonight because I hoped tonight’s meeting would be masked and safe for all.”

“Local and national public health experts have reminded us over and over again that mask mandates work — and that the majority of the council has duly recognized that by passing a resolution in support of masking,” said Clancy, D-Maplewood. “It is my sincere hope that we take seriously our duties, our responsibilities and our own agenda.”

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, pointed out that the mask mandate does not allow for criminal or civil enforcement.

“Let’s assume that the motion passes,” Fitch said. “Can we ask Councilwoman Clancy how she intends to enforce it?”

In response, Clancy said: “When there are violations of rules in the chamber, we give a verbal warning. And that has happened from time to time when time has exceeded public comment or when there has been unruly behavior in the chamber.

“And there has also been a suggestion that if the behavior does not change, the person who is in violation will be escorted out by security,” Clancy said.

Ultimately, Clancy’s motions to enforce masking in the chamber failed. That prompted Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, to say that Clancy’s moves “were an exercise to embarrass this council” and that “this was an exercise to embarrass me as the chair.”

“In no way are you going to ask me to put these officers in jeopardy for an issue that they do not control,” Days said. “I am not going to do that. They do not have the authority to remove anyone from this chamber for any reason unless we say, ‘You’re acting out and you’re doing something that’s disruptive.’”

After Days was nearly finished with her remarks, Clancy asked to speak. Days said: “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. You are not recognized. I’m talking.”

Clancy then walked out of the chambers and participated in the rest of the meeting from her office.

While Days and Clancy previously voted for a resolution in support of the mask mandate, they’ve been in different factions in a schism that revolves around support for Page. Days has been a critic of Page’s administration, while Clancy has been supportive.

Clancy said after the meeting that masking “unfortunately continues to be a very political issue.”

“I want to put the politics aside. I want to stand on the principles of public health,” Clancy said. “And tonight when I entered the chamber, I was looking forward to returning to in-person in the chamber tonight. And then it looked like we weren’t going to take our own guidelines related to the masking order.

“I sought to clarify that tonight,” she added. “And I got my answer.”

Days contended after the meeting that not only did the council not have authority to kick audience members out of the chamber, she didn’t have the ability to tell three Republican council members who weren't wearing masks — Fitch, Ernie Trakas and Mark Harder — to leave, either.

“They have been elected by their people, and they govern themselves,” Days said.

Council votes down bid to open Khan report

Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, council members voted down an effort from Fitch to open up records of an investigation involving acting Health Director Faisal Khan.

Last month, Page revealed that an investigation into Khan was completed and that he had been reprimanded for giving the middle finger to a crowd after a contentious council meeting in July. But Page declined to say if the inquiry revealed whether Khan's statements about being subjected to racial epithets and an assault were true.

Clancy and council members Trakas, R-St. Louis County; Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield; and Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County; voted against Fitch’s resolution. Trakas said that he didn’t believe the council had the authority to open up a record from the executive branch.

“We didn’t conduct the investigation,” Trakas said. “We didn’t create the report that’s in question. That was created by [Page’s administration]. And the Sunshine law is clear: We are not the governmental body authorized to release that document.”

Trakas added that he requested Khan “waive any confidentiality rights in respect to the record, and to my knowledge no action was taken on that.”

After his motion failed, Fitch said, “I would just say to the media and to the public: Make your sunshine request for this report.”

“And if they don’t give it to you, somebody needs to sue St. Louis County to get it,” Fitch said.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum 

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