It’s not usually a big deal when a politician accuses another politician of playing politics. But when the politician is Democratic County Executive Steve Stenger, and three of the four targets are Democrats, that’s news indeed.
“Real simple, it was political retribution,” Stenger said after Tuesday’s County Council meeting.
Stenger spoke up a week after the council voted 4-3 to reject a bill introduced by Republican Councilmember Mark Harder [District 7] to take the first steps to replace the extremely deteriorated Lewis Road bridge northeast of Eureka. Stenger contended that the councilmembers who voted “no” were getting back at Harder because of his vote against a proposal to give the council a director of legal research and because he [Harder] didn’t vote with the majority for a new county auditor.
Councilmembers voting “no” on the bridge at the April 11 were Rochelle Walton Gray [D-District 4], Democratic Councilmember Hazel Erby [D-District 1], Democratic Council Chairman Sam Page [D-District 2]; and Councilmember Ernie Trakas [R-District 6].
The week before, at the April 4 meeting, the same four voted for final passage of the bill creating the legal research director. Stenger returned the bill to the council with his objections, essentially vetoing it. His reasons included that it violated the county charter, took control of the county legal system and gave itself unfettered budget authority over the legal research office.
Also on April 4, the council took an initial vote on approval of the Lewis Road bridge work. It passed unanimously without discussion. The four who voted for the legal research director bill reversed themselves on the bridge bill at the April 11 meeting.
“There is no reason to not approve the Lewis bridge,” Stenger said. “This transcends party.”
Harder said, “To play petty politics with a safety issue is egregious.”
But Page denied that the vote was a matter of getting back at Harder.
“Absolutely not. Some people approach all differences of opinion with name calling. That is what is happening here,” Page said in an email. “No one disagrees on the merit of the project, just the timing of the spending.
“It’s an important project to me. I hope we can find the funds for it later in the year. We have a spending problem in the county and I hope we come to terms with it and don’t have to talk about any more tax increases.”
Walton Gray said, “If Harder comes to us, and gives us more information, I’d be willing to listen.”
But Stenger said the bridge is already budgeted, and that three of the four who voted against the bill were on the council when that budget was approved.
The bill would allow the county to negotiate with property owners to obtain temporary access to ground along Lewis Road, which a contractor will need for equipment and material placement.
The replacement of the two-lane bridge over the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks now is being designed and County Department of Transportation Spokesman David Wrone said work probably would not start until 2019.
The concrete Lewis Road bridge is about 114 feet long and carries about 350 vehicles on a typical weekday. It is located north of Interstate 44 and Allen Road and south of the Crescent Farms Golf Club and the Aberdeen Golf Club.
Eureka Fire Protection District Chief Greg Brown and several people who live close to the bridge spoke during a comment period at Tuesday’s county council meeting on the danger of a collapse. About 15-20 people also discussed it at a meeting at the Aberdeen Golf Club on Monday, April 17, Brown said.
Brown said both the Allen Road bridge and the Lewis Road bridge are in poor condition. He said he has given the order that district vehicles should not go over those bridges except in an emergency. There could be a dangerous situation if the bridge fell on a train carrying hazardous waste, he said.
“We have school buses that go over there,” said Mary Derrick, who lives in the area. If the bridge fell, “we would be stranded.”
On a scale of one to 100, with 100 being perfect condition, Harder said the Lewis Road bridge is rated at two, and the Allen Road bridge is rated at 17 or 19.
Harder said that a new bill providing for initial steps for both the Lewis Road and Allen Road bridges would be introduced at the council’s April 25 meeting. The cost of the Lewis Road bridge is estimated at about $2.5 million, he said. There is no cost estimate yet for the Allen Road bridge.