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St. Louis County residents likely to vote on slew of charter changes

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.

The St. Louis County Council isn’t finished changing up the county’s charter.

Council members on Monday sent four charter amendments for voter approval. The measures stem from an increasingly adversarial relationship between the council and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. They’re slated for the Nov. 6 general election.

Charter amendments approved at Monday’s meeting include:

  • Placing donation limits on contributions to county-based campaign committees. Currently, someone can give a donation of unlimited size to candidates running for county executive or the county council.
  • Requiring that certain county financial information be placed online.
  • Restricting the county’s ability to sell or build a commercial facility on park land. Under the charter amendment, the county would have to place a countywide proposition on the ballot to make such a move.
  • Giving the council significantly more authority over budgetary matters.

Three of the initiatives involving donation limits, financial information and budget authority were originally passed this year as one ballot item. But a judge ended up striking that initiative down, pointing to problems with the way the summary was written.

The four initiatives came about as the council’s relationship with St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger deteriorated over the past year and a half. The Council has sought to give itself more authority — most notably to give council members the ability to appoint their own attorney. (That ballot item, which was voted on last week, is currently trailing by three votes. Provisional ballots will end up deciding whether that measure passes or fails.)

“This county executive needs more oversight by the council and by the voters,” said Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur. “And that’s what these charter provisions will do. I don’t think anyone would interpret the last primary as a seal of approval for the county executive’s policies or leadership style. And these charter provisions will work to rebalance county government and make it more functional and more operational.”

The initiative regarding the county budget may be the most significant. Currently, a county executive has immense authority over budgetary matters. Under the charter amendment, the council would be able to make “supplemental or emergency appropriations from available income and reduce or transfer appropriations.” The council wouldn’t need the county executive to recommend any appropriation or fund transfer.

The amendment would also require the council to approve any county executive request to transfer money within a specific department. 

A spokesman for Stenger didn’t respond to an email asking if he would sign or veto these charter amendments. But he’s been critical of some of the initiatives in the past. For instance, he didn’t like how the donation limit charter amendment failed to address a candidate that self-funded — such as his adversary for county executive in the Democratic primary, Mark Mantovani.

Stenger also panned the expansion of the council’s budget power, contending it was giving “one branch of government total authority over this area.”

“It essentially gives the County Council unbridled authority to make modifications and changes and deletions and omissions and additions and subtractions and transfers of appropriating funds,” Stenger said in May.

Asked about Stenger’s criticism of the plan, Councilman Page observed that Stenger believes “anything that exercises any sort of authority to someone who sits in an executive position and has no checks on his power or authority would be a nuisance.” He added council members and Stenger have been in court over cuts the county executive made to the council’s budget.

“We believe the legislative branch of government is there for a reason,” Page said.

If Stenger does veto any of the charter amendments, the council would have to override that objection by August 28.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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