The Accidental Politician

After five years in office, enigmatic Darlene Green has become a force to be reckoned with in St. Louis

"I think sometimes people misinterpret her quietness and demeanor and may think she's too soft on issues, and that may have to do with following me as comptroller. She probably has less vinegar in her blood," Jones says. "People used to describe me as pretty cantankerous, contentious, but I had a different way of expressing my disagreement on issues than Darlene does." She has developed a reputation as someone "who doesn't get involved in public confrontations as much."

Green is also dealing with a different atmosphere than he did, Jones says, because he was the first African-American to serve as comptroller since John Bass lost his re-election bid in 1977 after serving a single term as comptroller. Jones was appointed to the position by former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, and for a while, he was the only black on the Board of Estimation and Apportionment. Jones says that's not an issue today, with Harmon and Green both on the board. And he says his battles may have paved the way for Green in some respects. He says he strived to improve the visibility of the office on the advice of former Comptroller and Mayor John Poelker, who felt the comptroller's position "had lost stature in terms of being the fiscal watchdog of the city and had become a rubber stamp of the mayor's office."

"What I set out to do, per Poelker's advice and counsel, was to restore the confidence level," Jones says. "By the time Darlene got there, a lot of that fight had been fought, with her help, too, as budget director."

Jennifer Silverberg
Darlene Green says she's pushing for the best financial deals for the city: "I'm the one who is going to be looking out for (taxpayers') interest when it comes to building a stadium or a (convention-center) hotel."
Jennifer Silverberg
Darlene Green says she's pushing for the best financial deals for the city: "I'm the one who is going to be looking out for (taxpayers') interest when it comes to building a stadium or a (convention-center) hotel."

Although Green is not considered as outspoken as Jones once was, she is not silent, either. In 1998, the mayor proposed a $113 million bond-issue package and property-tax increase to pay for improvements to the police and fire departments. Green went on record as saying the proposal was "bloated and simply too big" and withdrew her support from the plan. The mayor responded by scaling back the proposal to $65 million.

Earlier this year, Green voiced her disapproval after Harmon attempted to award a potentially lucrative contract to handle a lawsuit by the city against the lead-paint industry to the John Frank law firm, a contributor to Harmon's re-election campaign, without first seeking the approval of the E&A board.

When the contract landed on her desk, Green called the mayor's office to let him know she would not be signing it. "My office found the process had been skirted," she says. "I sent it back, said, "Can't do it,' and they began the proper process."

The matter generated a great deal of controversy because Frank's firm was criticized by Francis Slay as being less qualified than a competing law firm, which was rejected for the job by five-member city selection committee comprising representatives of Slay, Harmon and Green, plus two members of the city counselor's office. The committee chose Frank's firm, which proposed handling the suit for a 25 percent contingency fee, even though the rival law firm proposed charging just 18 percent if the case went to trial and 15 percent if the suit was settled beforehand. The committee did reduce the fee to Frank's firm to 20 percent.

At an E&A meeting in February, political wrangling continued between Harmon and Slay as Slay repeatedly spoke out about a less qualified firm's being awarded the contract for a higher fee and proposed slashing the fee to 18/15 percent. Throughout the verbal sparring by Slay and Harmon, Green stayed silent. But when time came for a vote, she noted that she, too, had concerns that Frank's firm was less qualified but, in the interest of expediency and in the interest of speeding up the likelihood of relief for lead-poisoned children, would approve the contract but with the reduced fee.

She has made her opinion known on issues outside the E&A board as well. Green showed up last month as a crowd chanted outside the Schnucks store at Natural Bridge Avenue and Union Boulevard to protest the closing of two groceries in the city.

"I thought it was important to go and important for the neighborhood people to let Schnucks know they were disappointed in how the store closings were handled, and also I felt they possibly were holding the neighborhood hostage by not only moving but planning not to allow the leases to be used by anyone else," Green says.

You have to stretch to find Green's critics. One of the few people who has anything negative to say about Green is Z. Dwight Billingsly, a deputy comptroller under Jones who ran unsuccessfully against Green in 1997.

"She hasn't really done anything," says Billingsly, a radio-talk-show host who is the Republican nominee in the race to represent for the 1st Congressional District. "Most of the things she takes credit for were things we put in -- the city's credit-rating upgrades were the result of Virvus Jones and Freeman Bosley passing two sales taxes. I believe the comptroller should be very outspoken with downtown revitalization, and you haven't heard a word from her on that. And a taxpayer-financed stadium would be a project that would be absolutely stealing from the taxpayers, and I haven't heard the comptroller say one word about taking tax revenue away from the city and giving it to sports-team owners."

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