When the St. Louis County Council voted to appoint its chairman, Dr. Sam Page, to serve as county executive, many West St. Louis County residents may not have known much more than his name.
However, in the weeks that have followed since his April 29 appointment, Page has been making good on his promise to “take county government in a new direction.”
At a press conference following his appointment, Page pledged to “emphasize accountability, transparency and professionalism in procedures in county government.”
Page’s appointment followed the resignation of former county executive Steve Stenger, who was indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts of bribery and public corruption as the result of a yearlong investigation by the U.S. Attorney General’s office. Stenger pleaded guilty to the charges on May 3. Per the St. Louis County charter, Page will serve in the executive seat until the November 2020 election, when the seat will appear on the ballot. A special election will be held to fill Page’s District 2 council seat.
Page was elected to Creve Coeur’s city council in 1999. From 2003 to 2008, Page represented a portion of St. Louis County in the Missouri House of Representatives. He transitioned to county government in 2014 after a special election to fill the District 2 county council seat following the death of council member Kathleen Kelly Burkett. Page was re-elected in 2016.
Prior to his county executive appointment, Page was an attending physician at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis and an adjunct assistant professor of anesthesiology at St. Louis University Medical School. After receiving an undergraduate degree in chemistry and working in the hazardous waste management department of the University of Missouri – Kansas City [UMKC], he received his Doctor of Medicine from the UMKC School of Medicine. He also completed a residency in anesthesiology at Northwestern University and a fellowship in pain management at Washington University in St. Louis.
Page is a past president of the Missouri Society of Anesthesiologists and the Missouri Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. In order to serve as county executive, Page will take a leave of absence from his anesthesiologist practice. He lives in Creve Coeur with his wife, Jennifer, and their children. Jennifer also is a practicing physician.
How has he voted?
Throughout the last several years, many of Page’s actions and votes have had a direct impact on West St. Louis County residents. Some of the most notable include:
• Opposition to Better Together’s efforts to bring a proposed merger to a statewide vote. Unlike Stenger, Page was a vocal opponent of Better Together while serving as a county council member. After assuming the role of county executive on April 29, Page appeared to momentarily step back from that opposition before reiterating his concerns, on April 30, regarding a statewide vote to decide the fate of the city and county.
Republican committeewoman Jennifer Bird, co-founder of the grassroots Stop the Merger campaign, was among those who took note of Page’s cautious words.
“Monday night [April 29] it sounded like he was saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what the [Better Together] plan is,’ but then he came back with comments on Tuesday that made me think, now we’re OK,” Bird said.
Indeed, by Monday, May 6, opponents of the proposed merger plan were more than OK. In fact, they were jubilant as Better Together organizers pushed the pause button on their efforts to put a St. Louis City-County merger measure to a statewide vote.
“I’m very excited for St. Louis County,” Bird said in an interview on May 6. However, she asked, “Are they [Better Together’s efforts] dead or just comatose? I don’t trust it. We still need HJR 54 to go through to offer that protection in the future.”
HJR 54, sponsored by Rep. Dean Plocher [R-Des Peres] “proposes a constitutional amendment requiring ballots to merge or dissolve cities or counties only be approved if those cities or counties approve the ballot.”
For his part, Page issued a statement that read: “Better Together’s proposal sparked a conversation about how our region’s governments could be reformed. That’s an important conversation, and one that we should continue.
“I appreciated Better Together’s contribution to the dialogue but I had several serious reservations about the group’s proposal. Among my concerns was the statewide vote. I believe any change to government in the city and the county should be up to city and county voters.
“I am encouraged that Better Together pulled its proposal today. It shows they’re listening. I hope that future efforts at reform will be built from the ground up, engaging community leaders, the African-American community, the Municipal League and other stakeholders.”
• Concern over Stenger’s proposed 2019 budget. In Dec. 2018, the county council advanced bills aiming to cut $35 million from the 2019 budget proposed by Stenger. Those actions followed a previous vote to cut $31 million from Stenger’s proposed 2018 budget. The vote was 5-1-1, with Page voting in favor of the proposed budget cuts.
• Opposition of the replacement of the Lewis Road bridge in Eureka. In 2017, Page voted in opposition of using funds to pay for a portion of the replacement costs of the Lewis Road bridge. While the bridge’s condition was cited as being unsafe by St. Louis County Department of Transportation, it only led to the home of businessman Michael Roberts and the Crescent Farms Public Golf Club, which Roberts owns. Page wanted Roberts to pay part of the $2.5 million bridge replacement cost. Roberts was identified as a sizable donor to Stenger’s campaign.
Council member Mark Harder [R-District 7] introduced the Lewis Road bridge replacement bill in April 2017, and later a combined bill, in June 2017, that called for acquiring easements and seeking contracts for the Lewis Road bridge and the nearby Allen Road bridge across the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks. On the latter bill, Page sought to approve only the Allen Road bridge request, which the council did.
In April 2018, the council voted down a third bill introduced by Harder attempting to fix the Lewis Road bridge. Page once again voted in opposition.
• A change of position on an ice rink in Creve Coeur Park. Prior to February 2017, the council approved a plan to locate a $45 million ice skating rink on 40 acres at the entrance to Creve Coeur Lake Park, according to County Parks and Recreation Department Director Gary Bess.
However, throughout that spring and summer, the plan came under attack by the Open Space Council, an area group that focuses on restoring and maintaining the area’s open spaces. By August 2017, grading on the site was underway but without approval from the National Parks Services. Because 350 acres within Creve Coeur Park was purchased with money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the National Park Service has to approve any use that isn’t for outdoor recreation.
At the time, Page said, “I will be disappointed to hear that construction has moved forward without the approval of the National Park Service.” He added that, while he had originally voted to approve the ice rink use, the council didn’t properly consider the legislation when it was approved the previous year.
Katie Jamboretz, then vice president of marketing and communications for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, said the grading was part of a stormwater project and not connected to the ice rink project. Regardless, Page introduced emergency legislation in September 2017 that would immediately cease the grading and restore disturbed vegetation.
Page said he changed his mind about the project when he learned more about it and decided it wasn’t an appropriate use for parkland.
“I regret that we did not have a public hearing prior to the council’s approval. It would have saved us a lot of trouble,” he said at the time.
However, the issue was a matter of contention between Page and Stenger, who supported the development of the rink by the Legacy Ice Foundation.
By November 2017, the developer pulled out of the deal after permit delays with the Department of Natural Resources.
• Moving county offices to The Crossings at Northwest. On July 12, 2016, the council approved legislation introduced by Page that allowed the relocation of the County Elections Board, the north county office of the county assessor, and the division of workforce development to the former site of Northwest Plaza in St. Ann, now known as The Crossings at Northwest.
At that time, Stenger said the planned lease would be for $12.98 per square foot, which includes a $10 million buildout of space being provided for county agencies at no extra cost. A $10 million savings over the 20-year life of the lease, as compared to rates paid for other county offices, was projected. In reality, the deal has cost the county millions in taxes.
With Stenger handling the lease, the county did not seek request for proposals [RFPs] on the lease, an action that then-county counselor Peter Krane said was not required. Critics, however, countered that by failing to obtain RFPs, Stenger was able to give preference to campaign donors Robert and P. David Glarner, owners of The Crossings at Northwest.
At the May 7 council meeting, Page announced that he had spoken with the Glarners about renegotiating the deal, noting that if a solution was not found, the county council could void the deal altogether. The Glarners reported they are willing to talk with Page.
• Supporting a change in the legal age for tobacco sales. In 2016, Page sponsored a bill prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. The council voted 5-1, with Harder voting in opposition on the grounds of not restricting individual freedoms pertaining to tobacco usage. The limit went into effect Dec. 1, 2016.
How will he move forward?
In a press conference following his appointment, Page defined some of his goals for the upcoming weeks.
His priorities include addressing two economic development agencies tied to dubious land contracts mentioned in Stenger’s indictment, settling outstanding litigation surrounding the Port Authority and replacing the Board of the Economic Partnership with an emphasis on new leadership.
Page initiated one of his goals on May 7, when Page issued a letter to the city council requesting a resolution to authorize State Auditor Nicole Galloway to audit parties involved in those actions for which Stenger was indicted, including the county government, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership among others.
Page said the goal is to determine the financial impact of Stenger’s action on taxpayers. As of May 6, other media outlets had reported totals between $200,000 to $550,000 in taxpayer impact.
In his first act as county executive, Page named a new chief of staff, Ladue attorney and public relations consultant, Winston Calvert, who previously served as city counselor under Mayor Francis Slay. Additionally, he recalled Garry Earls, chief operating officer for county executive Charlie Dooley, to assist in the transition phase. Mike Chapman, who resigned as Stenger’s director of operations in 2016, also has been named to the new administration. For existing staff, he hopes for better relations overall.
“County employees have felt ignored, looked down upon, ordered around for political gain at the expense of their expertise and wisdom,” Page said at the April 29 meeting. “Those practices are over. The best interests of St. Louis County have taken a backseat to the selfish, previous desires of our former county executive and our administration will do what is necessary and what is best for the taxpayers, no matter what.
“So, now, we move forward together.”