Judging Mariano

The circuit clerk and the city's judges square off on the public's right to know. The clerk and the public are losing.

But the judges pushed back.

The Missouri General Assembly last year cut the judiciary budget, and the Office of State Court Administrator was forced to reduce the total number of state court employees by 92. It was decided that 27 of those jobs had to come out of the city. Favazza should lose 15 employees, OSCA recommended, and the Probate Division, which is under the control of the judges, should lose 12. But the ultimate decision about who would suffer the losses would come from the presiding judge.

Neill decided that Favazza should lose 25 employees; Probate would only lose two.

Jennifer Silverberg
Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza: "I look in the mirror and ask myself if I'm doing things for the right reasons."
Jennifer Silverberg
Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza: "I look in the mirror and ask myself if I'm doing things for the right reasons."

David defends the cuts, saying that "virtually identical percentage of probate staff was cut as the clerk's office staff."

Favazza says he couldn't do the job the voters elected him to do with 25 fewer workers. So he went around the judges.

In September, after learning how many positions were being slashed from his office, Favazza called the city's top three budget officials -- Mayor Francis Slay, Comptroller Darlene Green and Aldermanic President James Shrewsbury. Favazza asked them to transfer money from his postage account into another account so that he could hire five additional workers. Even though the employees would be paid by the city, they'd be working in a state office.

The city approved. Favazza hired five people.

And the judges went ballistic.

In a budget-committee report prepared by Dierker, Favazza's acts were called "illegal." The committee also told Neill to inform Slay, Green and Shrewsbury that any further money transfers at the clerk's request, without their approval, would be illegal.

When Favazza recently submitted next year's proposed city budget, the court axed the money to pay for the five employees. Then the judges reduced Favazza's general budget fund by $400,000.

On March 25, he pleaded with the court to reconsider their stance on his budget.

He told the judges that his file-room clerks were working from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. in an effort to keep up. And he told the judges that they were wrong in their interpretation of the state law that governs his budget.

He apologized for not having worked more closely with them in the past.

The judges weren't moved -- and slashed his funding anyway.

But Favazza isn't giving up. He says he plans to lobby City Hall to restore his budget, and, if that doesn't work, maybe he'll sue the judges.

After all, Mariano Favazza can't take no for an answer.

There are people who will say that Favazza can't give a straight answer, either -- especially on why he didn't get the clerk's position changed to an appointed one.

Favazza says his promise was misunderstood and misquoted.

"The people of St. Louis ought to decide for themselves if this office is appointed or elected," Favazza says. "How you fill this position should be left for the people to decide."

He says that he still thinks the circuit clerk should be appointed but also says that's a decision for the people -- not one he can unilaterally make.

He even has an old campaign flier on his desk as proof. It promises he'll "work to give voters a chance to voice their opinion in a nonbinding referendum on whether the clerk should become a nonpartisan appointed office by the circuit judges like in St. Louis County."

But that's not the way many of the judges remember it.

Until the people have a say so, he'll remain. His term ends Dec. 31, 2002, and he's running for a second term. The primary is in August, the general election in November; the new officeholder will take over in January.

Favazza has two challengers, but so far neither looks to be a big threat. He says that because he's now a "proven commodity," he's already "had a number of officeholders endorse my re-election effort."

But the judges haven't given up trying to gain control of the office.

They've gone to the Legislature in the hopes of making some changes and, with any luck, getting Favazza out of their hair.

A measure introduced this session by state Rep. Richard Byrd (R-Kirkwood) would not only yank the clerk's elected status and transform it into an appointed one but would go into effect Jan. 1.

Byrd says the proposed legislation is something "that the judges in the city of St. Louis thought would be useful." But the bill hasn't been scheduled for a hearing or placed on the legislative calendar. He gives it a minimal chance of succeeding.

Rep. Ralph Monaco (D-Raytown), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, agrees. The committee, which includes several St. Louis lawyers, "isn't lockstep on the issue," Monaco says. And given that the fight is viewed as a St. Louis issue, nothing will happen until there's a clear consensus.

There isn't.

So the odds look pretty good that Favazza and the 31 judges are stuck with each other for another four years, in what Favazza referred to as an "institutionally schizophrenic" situation. It's a formula for stalemate, in which innovations -- such as putting case information on the Web -- get delayed or sabotaged.

And ultimately it's the public that loses.

Even though Favazza knows the judges don't want him there, he plans to stay, insisting that he needs to continue doing the people's work.

The people of St. Louis "didn't elect me to have fun; they elected me to do a job," Favazza says. "Whenever my last day in office arrives, I'll know I left this place better than how I found it."

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