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Judge rules against County Council leadership appointments

St. Louis County Council members (from left) Mark Harder, Tim Fitch, Ernie Trakas and Lisa Clancy with County Executive Sam Page at right. (Source: Jeffrey Bricker/File photo)

The matter of who will lead the St. Louis County Council in 2021 has finally been decided. The contentious issue was not settled by council members but by a local judge. In a ruling on March 2, St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas Albus found that council members Lisa Clancy (D-District 5) and Ernie Trakas (R-District 6) were unlawfully appointed to the positions of chair and vice-chair, respectively, during the first council meeting of the year. Albus’ decision means council members Rita Days (D-District 1) and Mark Harder (R-District 7) will now hold those positions.

“To allow the county to amend its charter and change the effective date of officers’ terms while providing no practical way for an elected successor to cut off an incumbent’s right to hold over would allow it to effectively violate the Missouri Constitution’s proscription against terms of more than four years,” Albus said his ruling.

The ruling was a clear victory for a new majority of the council that doesn’t necessarily support the same policy objectives as St. Louis County Executive Sam Page. That new coalition includes Days, Harder, council member Tim Fitch (R-District 3), and council member Shalonda Webb (D-District 4).

Immediately following the court’s decision, Clancy issued a statement indicating the conflict had been settled.

“I consider this matter settled, and I am glad to have it behind us. To me, this has definitely never been about disrespect for Councilwoman Webb or former Councilwoman Walton Gray. Or about race. Or about age. It was – and remains – about ensuring the independence of county government from ideology, and about following the rules,” Clancy said in the statement. “With this clarification from the court, we have what we need to put this issue behind us—and that is what I intend to do.”

At the heart of the matter was whether or not former council member Rochelle Walton Gray (D-District 4) should be allowed to participate in the first council meeting of 2021. Charter rules require the council to select new leadership every year during the first meeting of the year. However, Walton Gray’s participation was curious as her term had expired on Jan. 1 and the newly elected council member from District 4, Webb, was not allowed to participate.

The county counselor, on behalf of Clancy, Trakas, and council member Kelli Dunaway (D-District 2) argued that Webb had not yet been sworn into office and thus could not legally be seated for the meeting. But Webb did try to have the county clerk swear her in and was denied, per court records.

Albus held that Webb should have been seated and allowed to participate in the meeting in place of Walton Gray.

Prior to the court ruling, council members engaged in fierce back and forth bickering over the rules and who should be serving in the council’s leadership roles. At one point during a Jan. 5 meeting, Fitch refused to recognize Clancy as the chairperson, which led to a fit of name-calling.

Fitch wrote in a tweet on March 2, “Fighting for Chairwoman Days & Councilmembers Webb & Harder was worth Trakas calling me a ‘fool’ & Clancy calling me a ‘bully’. I’ve been called much worse.”

The majority coalition issued a statement immediately following the release of Albus’ ruling.

The statement read: “This is the outcome that the majority of the Council has supported since electing Days and Harder to office. The Council is pleased that the Court recognized the validity of the January 15, 2021 election, the only vote that included Councilmember Shalonda Webb, who overwhelmingly defeated former Councilmember Gray for the 4th District Council seat in November. The undersigned are glad to have this dispute behind them and are ready to move forward with the important business before the Council.”

Transcripts of debate by commission members indicate there were concerns previously expressed over the timing of leadership appointments on the council as it may conflict with the Missouri Constitution. However, when the issues were raised, one member of the county council advised the commission there would be no conflict.

That council member was Trakas, who is also an attorney.

“Just a quick question, Mr. Presiding Officer, in thinking of unintended consequences again,” commission member Courtney Curtis asked at the time according to the transcript from Oct. 16, 2019. “If the first fell on a Tuesday and I guess there wouldn’t be a meeting that night but are there any unintended consequences with switching the date given that if they didn’t take place, take office on the first, is there any potential business that would be missed by waiting several days potentially?”

Trakas was the chair/presiding officer of the council at the time of the discussion.

“No, because the existing executive and the existing council will still be in office,” Trakas responded.

“But would the council person, they wouldn’t be in office … ?” Curtis asked for clarification.

“Sure they would,” Trakas said.

The total cost of this mistake is not yet known, but county taxpayers will ultimately flip the bill for legal representation on both side of the argument. Clancy, Trakas, and Dunaway were represented by the county counselor’s office but the other side had to secure outside legal representation. However, the council has already agreed to pay the bills for those attorneys.

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