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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.

On the Trail: St. Louis County Council considers reversing prosecutor’s pension boost

Bob McCulloch is sworn in for another term as St. Louis County Prosecutor in 2015.
File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Bob McCulloch is sworn in for another term as St. Louis County Prosecutor in 2015.

The St. Louis County Council gave Prosecutor Bob McCulloch — with unanimous consent — a retirement-pension boost last year. That same council might take it away.

The council will begin hearings Tuesday on a bill to do just that, with several council members contending that County Executive Steve Stenger mislead them last year. He denied that charge and said his adversaries on the council knew exactly what they voted on, deepening the riftthat’s been exposed in recent months.

McCulloch, who’s been the county prosecutor since 1991, was a key part of the Ferguson fallout, leading the grand jury that decided to not charge officer Darren Wilson after he shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014. McCulloch also backed Stenger’s successful 2014 challenge of then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

McCulloch is eligible for a state pension with annual payments equal to half of his final average salary, which has been $160,000 annually for several years.

Before November 2016, McCulloch’s county retirement benefits were reduced because of the state pension. The council’s 7-0 vote, recently detailed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, meant McCulloch could get his full county pension.

It isn’t clear how much money McCulloch would get from his county retirement package; a message to McCulloch’s spokesman wasn’t returned and Stenger said such details aren’t public record. (St. Louis County’s legal team has said that estimating McCulloch’s pension would require taking into account things like sick leave, which is protected under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, according to Stenger spokeswoman Allison Blood.) 

County Councilwoman Hazel Erby has introduced legislation that would effectively take McCulloch’s county pension away. The University City Democrat said she accepts “responsibility for voting for” last year’s bill and “not knowing what it was truly meant to be.” But she believes there are legitimate questions about whether McCulloch should get full state and county pensions for the same job.  

hazel erby
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Councilmembers Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, and Hazel Erby, D-University City.

“Whose job is it to police the county executive? We’re being beat up about that bill,” Erby said. “But (Stenger) had the nerve to say openly that he felt that Bob McCulloch should be rewarded for his service. Why should he be rewarded? He’s a public elected official. We’re elected officials. Should I be rewarded for the 13 years that I’ve worked out there?”

Councilman Sam Page, a former Stenger ally-turned-critic, contends council members were kept in the dark about the pension bill’s contents.

“I take responsibility for my vote, even if I was misled. But it’s certainly within the realm of possibility to put things in bills and not tell people about them and have them be missed,” Page said. “But it’s happened. And we’re going to go back and look at it, because it clearly got past everyone on the council.”

‘No one was fooled’

Stenger’s relationship with a majority of the council has soured considerably this year, with council members opposing him depending on the topic — redeveloping the Jamestown Mall in north St. Louis County, hiring certain staffers and evenreplacing old bridges. 

A St. Louis Public Radio file photo of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

Page and others had about a month to ask questions about last year’s pension bill, Stenger said, adding that a letter to council members clearly mentioned that it would affect McCulloch’s retirement benefits.

“In no government across the country is it required that the bills be read by a bill reader or some kind of a reader to the council,” Stenger said. “They’re expected to read the bills. The bills are presented to the council in English. It’s very basic language.”

Stenger also said council members “absolutely knew what the bill was when they voted for it,” and that his adversaries “ran like cowards” when the Post-Dispatch contacted them about their decision-making.

“No one was fooled. No one was tricked. There was no deceit. This was a really simple matter,” he said.

Councilman Pat Dolan, a Richmond Heights Democrat who backs Stenger, said he knew that he was voting to boost McCulloch’s pension, and added it wasn’t unreasonable — especially when McCulloch could have made more as a private-sector attorney.

It’s unclear whether there’s enough support on the council to reduce McCulloch’s pension. And Stenger almost certainly will veto any significant change; overriding a veto would take five of the seven council members.

Regardless of what happens, Page and Erby said they’re going to keep the pressure on Stenger and break with recent precedent by sending bills to committees as a means of forcing Stenger’s administration to give more information to the council.

“We’ve started sending all of the legislation to committees, because we can’t trust the administration to tell us the truth,” Erby said.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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