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Leadership fight on County Council ends in stalemate

A nasty fight among members of the St. Louis County Council is headed to court.

The dispute stems from a confusing new rule passed by voters last year about who should be allowed to select council leadership for the coming year. Both sides have claimed the moral and legal authority in the dispute. One thing is certain — taxpayers will foot the bill.

Council members Lisa Clancy (D- District 5) Ernie Trakas (R-District 6)
[Source: St. Louis County Council Meeting Jan. 15, 2021]

A special meeting on Jan. 15, called by four council members over the objections of the other three, was marred by protests, admonishing and old-fashioned rudeness. The council was not split strictly along party lines, rather it seemed to align in terms of support for County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s leadership versus those who wish to put more checks on it.

“It is clear that the disagreement and division within this council cannot or will not be reconciled by this council,” council member Ernie Trakas [R-District 6] said in an ominous statement that opened the meeting. “As such, it seems equally clear that the only way to address and finally resolve the issue is to seek judicial interpretation …”

In the end, Trakas was proved correct. Nothing was settled and the matter is now headed to court.

Trakas’ grim opening statement was followed by an attempt by council member Tim Fitch (R-District 3) to act as the presiding officer for the meeting despite the fact that council member Lisa Clancy (D-District 5) was present. Clancy had been named council chair on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

The move by Fitch was a clear sign that he and others were not going to respect Clancy’s legitimacy as the presiding officer. What followed can only be described as a sad public circus that lacked any sense of decorum or professionalism.

Over the loud and continuous objections of Clancy, Trakas and council member Kelli Dunaway (D-District 2), the majority of the council revisited the question of leadership for 2021 and elected council member Rita Heard Days (D-District 1) as chair and Mark Harder (R-District 7) as vice-chair. The end result was a bitterly divided council that refused to recognize the legitimacy of either side’s claim to council leadership.

“I wish this transition had been smoother, but nevertheless, this is where we are,” Days said immediately following the vote.

The controversy started just before the first council meeting of the new year when it was made known that outgoing councilmember Rochelle Walton Gray [D-District 4] would be participating in the initial leadership vote despite the fact that her term ended on Dec. 31, 2020. Gray lost her reelection bid to fellow Democrat Shalonda Webb during the August primaries. However, a new rule that was recently approved by voters delayed the swearing-in of new councilmembers until the second meeting of the year. Therefore, Webb was not invited and did not participate in the council’s Jan. 5 meeting.

The change in council procedures may have gone widely unnoticed except for the election of a new chair and vice-chair for 2021. Over the objections, and at times yelling, of two Republican councilmembers (Fitch and Harder) and one Democratic holdout (Days), the remaining councilmembers reelected Clancy as the 2021 chair and elected Trakas as the vice-chair.

The three members of the council who opposed the Jan. 5 vote promised to immediately reverse it. With Webb joining them, the three “no” votes for Clancy and Trakas now had a majority of the council in their favor. This gave them the ability to call a special meeting and to revisit the key vote.

“Again I appeal that action. I appeal that motion,” Clancy said of the vote to elect Days as presiding officer. “It was unlawful per the Missouri Constitution and our St. Louis County Charter.”

After her statement, Clancy attempted to continue to lead the meeting as if the vote has not taken place.

“You are no longer the chair,” Councilmember Tim Fitch (R-District 3) said to Clancy.

The shameful display on both sides continued as both Days and Clancy attempted to control the meeting with both barking orders at a clearly bewildered county clerk.

At one point, county clerk Diann Valenti had to admonish the entire council to behave in a more reasonable manner.

“We are obligated to record the proceedings from the meeting,” Valenti said. “And when everyone is talking over one another, it is very difficult for us to capture what is being said. So I ask that we please try to talk one at a time so that we can capture the important statements that you are making.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page (left) and council member Shalonda Webb (D-District 2)
[Source: St. Louis County Council Meeting Jan. 15, 2021]

While the constant bickering was an unfortunate public spectacle, the outcome was hardly a surprise.

Immediately after the Jan. 5 meeting, Webb publicly expressed concerns over the way her exclusion from the vote would “disenfranchise” voters in her district. So predictably, when Webb was seated as the council member for District 4, she supported the effort to overturn the results of the leadership vote taken without her.

Unlike nearly all of her colleagues, Webb offered no public statement during the meeting and did not try to seize the opportunity to grandstand or talk over fellow councilmembers. But her consistent votes on the issue of council leadership spoke loud enough.

That didn’t stop the vigorous objections of the minority.

“This action is obscenely illegal,” Trakas said, repeating his objections and abstaining on every vote.

Clancy and Dunaway followed suit and in the end, despite an hour of arguing, the issue remained unresolved. The St. Louis County Counselor, Beth Orwick, was asked to weigh in on the issue and sided with Clancy, Dunaway and Trakas. The remaining council members rejected Orwick’s legal opinion with Fitch often complaining that Orwick is a “political appointee” of Page.

“I do not dispute that the process put both the outgoing councilwoman and the incoming councilwoman in uncomfortable positions and raised questions from some residents of the fourth district and elsewhere,” Clancy said in a statement released after the meeting. “But it was still the law. I have requested legislation to allow voters to consider a change of our charter so that the swearing-in of new council members coincides with our first meeting of the year.”

A lawsuit, filed by Orwick after the meeting, contends the Jan. 5 selection of council leadership was “legal and proper” and that subsequent actions to reverse that vote were “null and void.” Orwick’s intervention, via the lawsuit, has her acting on behalf of council members Clancy, Dunaway and Trakas. It’s not clear who will be representing the other side. All legal costs associated with the court action will presumably be paid for by the taxpayers of St. Louis County.

Council members Fitch, Harder, Webb and Days have until Jan. 21 to file a response to the suit. The next council meeting is scheduled for Jan. 19. It was not clear at press time who will act as the presiding officer or if any county business will be able to be conducted.

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