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Page’s future success could depend on whether he can mend fences with council foes

Updated at 9:20 p.m. Jan. 10 with the St. Louis County Council electing Democrat Shalonda Webb as its chair

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page expressed optimism at his swearing-in Tuesday that the political battles that have dominated his tenure in office are behind Missouri’s largest county.

But the Democratic chief executive’s upcoming tenure will face challenges from a difficult budgetary environment and the lack of a solid majority of supporters on the St. Louis County Council.

Page, County Prosecutor Wesley Bell and County Assessor Jake Zimmerman were all sworn in to office along with four members of the county council. With the exception of Councilman Dennis Hancock, all of the officials who took the oath of office on Tuesday in Clayton were reelected to their posts.

In his remarks, Page alluded to some of the difficulties of his time in office — including the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and high-profile battles with the council. Page defeated Republican Mark Mantovani with 51% of the vote. By contrast, Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Trudy Busch Valentine got over 60% of the vote in St. Louis County.

“And 2022 was also a political year, which brought harsh words, deeper divisions and a souring of public opinion on government,” Page said. “And that's why we must double down on good government, trust in government and transparency in government.”

During their inauguration speeches, several members of the County Council talked about the challenges ahead. They include figuring out a way to balance the county’s budget while minimizing the use of reserves and deciding how to spend a settlement stemming from the departure of the St. Louis Rams.

Councilman Dennis Hancock has his St. Louis County pin placed by on his coat by his wife Christine
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Dennis Hancock has his St. Louis County pin placed by on his coat by his wife Christine Hancock on Tuesday during an inauguration ceremony at Memorial Park Plaza in Clayton.

Hancock, the newest member of the council, said if officials are able to put constituents first, “then all of our differences will pale by comparison.”

“And we're going to need to remember that as we move forward, we are facing some very serious issues in St. Louis County,” said Hancock, R-Fenton. “We have infrastructure needs throughout the county that need to be addressed. We have children in our region who go to sleep to the sound of gunfire in their neighborhoods. We have businesses that are still trying to recover from the impact of the pandemic. But first and foremost, we have a systemic budget deficit that has to be resolved.”

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said the COVID-19 pandemic “laid bare just how interconnected we really are” in showing how “some of the things that work well here in St. Louis County only work for some of us.”

“I still believe in us, in our community and in our whole region, just like I did four years ago,” said Clancy, D-Maplewood. “I know our best days are ahead of us. And in this next term, my focus will continue to be on improving the lives of our county's children and those who care for them.”

In addition to Hancock and Clancy, Councilwoman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, and Councilwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, were sworn in to the council Tuesday.

Webb takes over as council chair

Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County, prepares for the June 1, 2021 meeting of the St. Louis County Council.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, of the fourth district, prepares for a June 1, 2021, regular meeting of the St. Louis County Council in Clayton.

The council on Tuesday night picked a relative newcomer as its chair for the 2023 legislative session.

The council’s four Democrats put aside past divisions to elect Fourth District Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-Black Jack. The three Republicans, including Hancock, backed Harder.

Harder, the council’s longest-serving member, will be vice chair.

Webb replaces Days, who presided over two years of sometimes tumultuous meetings that often featured personal attacks, conspiracy theories and falsehoods about COVID spouted by members of the public and council members alike. And though they were on the same side of the aisle, Days and Page were no fans of each other.

Webb pledged a much more collaborative relationship with Page and her colleagues.

“Our constituents deserve this. They have sent us here to work on their behalf, and it’s time we get it right,” she said.

Webb spent the last months of 2022 chairing a working group that evaluated and recommended how to spend the county’s remaining $67 million in federal COVID relief funds. And she will lead the council as it tries to tackle other complex issues, including looming budget difficulties. The county’s2023 budget is balanced only because of reserve funds, which are getting close to being exhausted.

“This council will not recklessly cut services to the people who need them the most,” Webb said. “We have to be creative at bringing in much-needed revenue, and we have to be creative about what St. Louis County will look like 10, 15, 20, 25 years from now.”

Page eyes freeholder restart

Mayor Tishaura Jones, right, embraces St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Tishaura Jones, right, embraces St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page after Page was sworn in to a full 4-year term on Tuesday after an inauguration ceremony at Memorial Park Plaza in Clayton.

After his speech, Page said in an interview that there’s been increased chatter about St. Louis joining St. Louis County as a municipality. And before such an idea can go before city and county voters, Page said that an entity known as the Board of Freeholders would have to meet to hash out a specific proposal.

The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis gathered enough signatures in 2019 to start the freeholders process. But it fizzled after St. Louis aldermen didn’t approve members and pandemic issues took precedence.

Page said there would have to be discussions with lawyers about whether the 2019 process is still active or whether a new signature-gathering campaign would be needed.

“There are a lot of folks looking at it and have different opinions,” Page said. “Our attorneys in the county government think that we're good to go with the signatures we have. The Municipal League folks, they’re talking about getting new signatures and starting over. I'm not sure what the position is of the attorneys in St. Louis City. You know, there will always be folks that look at this from different angles. So we'll keep talking about it.”

He also added that he and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, who attended the inauguration, talk regularly about working together.

“And we'll continue to do that to work on issues of common interest, public health, public safety, economic development,” Page said. “Those are all cross-border issues that we work on every day.”

As for working together with the council, Page said that they “heard today from everyone that we're ready to hit the reset button and move forward.”

“Government budgets are always top of mind. We see that at all levels of government, but it's a challenge,” Page said. “And we'll be working through it like all other complex questions in front of us.”

Bell and Zimmerman also stress cooperation

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell gives remarks after being sworn in to another term on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, during an inauguration ceremony at Memorial Park Plaza in Clayton.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell gives remarks after being sworn in to another term on Tuesday during an inauguration ceremony at Memorial Park Plaza in Clayton.

Compared to Page, Zimmerman and Bell had relatively uneventful reelection bids. But they also used their speeches to stress cooperation and political peace.

Bell faced no opposition in the Democratic primary and defeated a Libertarian challenger in the general election. He noted his office worked with police to reduce car theft and violent crime.

“And so when we talk about impossible, four years ago, they said that we couldn't beat an entrenched incumbent. But we did,” said Bell, referring to his win over Bob McCulloch. “They said that diversion programs wouldn't work. But with our partners, many of whom are here today, we've helped over 1,700 people that we wouldn't have otherwise.”

Zimmerman, who ran against Page during a 2020 Democratic primary for county executive, said the inauguration should serve as a fresh start and a transition into a new governing era.

“What inaugurations are, the reason they are so sacred in democratic societies around the world, is that an inauguration is the moment of transition,” Zimmerman said, “when we put the politics behind us. The people are paying all of us to do a job.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.