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St. Louis County councilman renews debate over nonpartisan elections

Tim Fitch, republican St. Louis County councilman, speaks to the media while holding up legislation he is set to propose Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, during a press conference on the recent uptick in regional automobile-related crimes at the St. Louis County government building in Clayton.
File photo/ Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, has renewed debate over whether elected offices like county executive or council councilmember should be partisan.

A St. Louis County councilman is going back to the drawing board on whether elected offices in the county should be partisan.

Councilman Tim Fitch was seeking voter approval to pass a charter amendment under which candidates for council and countywide offices would no longer run in partisan primaries. Instead, they would run in one election in August. And if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the two top vote-getters would move on to a November runoff.

But Fitch withdrew the measure on Tuesday, citing issues that the county counselor raised. Among other things, he said the bill was going to need to be reworked to take effect after the 2022 election cycle, since the filing period for posts like county executive and county council would be open before any hypothetical change would take effect. He plans to change the proposal.

“I’m one of the people who complain often that the [county counselor] doesn’t get it right. I think this one they got it right,” Fitch said Tuesday during the council meeting. “There are significant legal issues with this that independent candidates for office could be excluded. So based on that, I really need to rework this.”

Councilwomen Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, and Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County, had told the Missouri Independent they no longer supported Fitch’s proposal after initially voting to move it forward. Fitch said Wednesday the tabling of the legislation was based on trying to fix deficiencies in the bill and had “nothing to do with support.”

A longstanding idea

The main benefit of the proposal, Fitch said, is that county elected officials would “stop getting into our R or D corners of the ring.” He noted that in recent years, Republicans and Democrats have banded together to make up majority factions on the council.

“The vast majority of what we do in St. Louis County are not partisan issues,” said Fitch, R-St. Louis County. “There are no Democratic or Republican potholes in St. Louis County. We need to get past that. The City of St. Louis has already gotten past that. They dropped their partisan affiliation.”

For the most part over the past decade, the dividing line in county politics has been on whether members of the council support or oppose the county executive. Fitch noted that council members often approve the vast majority of legislation that the county executive supports.

Fitch said switching to nonpartisan elections would prompt voters to “become a little bit more informed about the person that they’re going to vote for.”

“You may get to know that person and they may seem like a conservative person. You may be a Democrat and think, ‘Well, the way they feel represents my feelings — I will vote for that individual,’” Fitch said. “But right now, you’ve got some people who just go in and they vote ‘R’ or a ‘D.’ And they don’t know anything about those individuals.”

Dr. Sam Page, St. Louis County Executive, gives a public update on rental assistance during the COVID-1 pandemic on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at the St. Louis County Government building in Clayton, Mo.
File photo / Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page is on record opposing Fitch's proposal, contending that voters should get the best sense of where candidates' philosophical values lie.

Cool reception from some Democrats

But the proposal is getting a dim reception from Democrats like Page, who says that party affiliation is an important attribute of candidates for county offices.

“I believe that people should know who they’re voting for, especially for something as important as county government where we have a lot to say about the lives of folks in St. Louis County,” Page said earlier this week. “People need to know the basic philosophical compass of the person who they’re voting for. So I don’t support it.”

Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, noted on Twitter that nonpartisan elections could be a way for Republicans to gain power back in county government — which is an increasingly difficult task in a place that votes for Democratic presidential candidates with more than 60% of the vote.

“They know where they stand in the county,” Beck said. “And this way, it would confuse things and confuse people. They could maybe come back into power.”

When asked if the real dividing line in county government was about support or opposition to the county executive, and not party affiliation, Page said “anybody can make any assessment they want — it depends on the issue.”

“Historically, county government has been relatively nonpartisan,” Page said. “But as our country has become more partisan over the past five years, we’ve seen more partisan division at the local level. And we’ll see some of that. There certainly are personalities involved. And that’s fine. That happens in the state government as well.”

At least one Republican committeeman is not a fan of moving to nonpartisan elections. David Stokes, who serves as the Clayton Township Republican committeeman, pointed to studies showing that nonpartisan elections did not make electorates more informed about candidates.

“I think the evidence is clear that on the whole, you take more information away from voters than you give to them by this change,” Stokes said.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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