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Council Tasked With Passing Bonds To Pay For Wildhaber Settlement

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page speaks with reporters on Feb. 11, 2020, about a settlement for Lt. Keith Wildhaber.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page speaks with reporters Tuesday about a settlement for Lt. Keith Wildhaber.

The St. Louis County Council will consider a bonding plan to pay, at least temporarily, for a discrimination settlement with a St. Louis County police officer.

It’s a move that’s likely to pass, even as St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s administration will seek to recoup the funds from insurance plans.

Page announced on Monday that the county reached a $10.25 million settlement with Lt. Keith Wildhaber. He had been awarded nearly $20 million by a jury that found he was passed up for promotion because he was gay.

Some of the $10.25 million must be paid by April. Page said that money will come from the county’s insurance fund. He’s asking the council to authorize bonds as the county seeks money from its insurance policies. Page noted there’s a $2 million deductible, so the most the county can get from the plans is $8 million.

“And rather than have our backs against the wall with these negotiations over getting our payment with someone who has a big bill to pay, and may hesitate to do that, we will be ready for a longer period of time,” Page said after the county council meeting Tuesday night. “Is it going to be 30 years? Of course not. But that gives us access to the lowest payments at a time when we have a very tight budget.”

Page said the Wildhaber saga “will serve as an important lesson to county government and to employers of all of the St. Louis region.”

“Discrimination is completely unacceptable,” he said.

Some members of the council said they were amenable to the idea of bonding. Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway said bonds are “something that we need to look at as we move forward.” 

“Our hope is that our insurance is going to end up picking up a big chunk of the cost. And in that case, we wouldn't need to bond,” said Dunaway, D-Chesterfield. “But I think it's really important that we hang on to that as an option as we move forward. We don't want any of our services or constituents to be damaged by not having the resources to fund our current programs.”

Dunaway said it was wise to settle with Wildhaber, because she did not believe that an appeal would have worked in the county’s favor — which meant that taxpayers would be on the hook for more than the settlement.

“I think it’s really important to recognize that Lt. Wildhaber was discriminated against,” Dunaway said. “And it's really important for employers who discriminate against their employees are held accountable. And as much pain as that may cause the county, I think it's really important that we find a way to pay this out and make him whole.”

Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said the big payment could have been avoided if the county had not gone to court.

“I don’t think we’re going to have much choice here,” Harder said. “We don’t have the money in our other budget funds, so we’re going to have to most likely bond this money. The executive said he will apply for the insurance on this and see what we get out of that.”

Page expects the council will take up the bonding legislation in the coming weeks. He repeated Tuesday that no money from the Proposition P sales tax for public safety will be used for the settlement.

Council gives initial approval to domestic violence gun ban

Also on Tuesday, the council moved closer to passing legislation meant to keep people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions or orders of protection from having concealed firearms.

The council voted 4-2 to bar people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from carrying a concealed firearm. It also bars someone subject to a court order against stalking or harassing an intimate partner from having such a weapon.

The measure would only affect unincorporated St. Louis County — and would fine people who violate the law. Federal law already bars domestic violence abusers from having guns, and violators face much stiffer penalties. 

Proponents of the move contend that it’s a start toward getting guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. Backers noted that the state of Missouri does not have a statute on the books that’s similar to federal law prohibiting people with domestic violence convictions or orders of protections from having guns.

“You have the opportunity to look at passing an ordinance that ensures that those who have a history of violence and those who have shown a desire to hurt another person do not have access to the weapon in order to do that,” said Heather Silverman of the National Council of Jewish Women, who attended Tuesday’s meeting to support the proposed law.

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, questioned whether the ordinance would actually stop someone convicted or accused of domestic violence from hurting a loved one. 

“I don’t see where this will be anything but a political statement,” Fitch said. “It will have no effect on crime, on domestic violence — it will have none. I understand they passed this in Kansas City. I understand they passed this in the city of St. Louis. And it came to us next. I get that. However, when we talk about real impact — it won’t have any.”

Laurie Punch, a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners and a surgeon, said, “What we do in our local environment is very important — law reflects culture and priority.”

“So I do not think it is a weak or lofty thing to think that a small council ordinance is nothing,” Punch said. “In fact, local law really is the only thing that differentiates the experience of gun violence in this country. ... Will it solve the entire problem? Absolutely not. We’re not foolish. We don’t have any false pretense about this putting people in absolute safety just because we pass this one ordinance.

“I think it is a bold statement valuing locally the lives of children who are impacted by bullets in the setting of domestic violence,” she added. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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