At Last, We've Got Bad News to Report from the Suburbs

Steve Stenger reminded the media that St. Louis County has scandals, too.
Steve Stenger reminded the media that St. Louis County has scandals, too. DOYLE MURPHY

For the longest time, we in the St. Louis media have heard criticisms that we're too focused on politics and controversies in the city, at the expense of coverage in St. Louis County and surrounding environs.

I've always thought that was fair enough. Whether it's the mainstream media or those of us criticizing the mainstream media, we pay so little attention to the suburbs that even when something newsworthy happens, the coverage has traditionally been fleeting at best.

Our best excuse has been that city news was simply more interesting than suburban news. Do you expect us to cover some obscure quarrel about zoning regulations in Black Jack or would you rather read some actually interesting stuff about crime or corruption or strained race relations or bigotry or slimy deals with developers in the city?

We were partly right — the zoning board stuff is deadly boring and the city characters unfailingly more quotable — so when you factor in the need to sell newspapers or get people to pay attention to free ones and to TV newscasts and radio programs and now, all things online, you've got to go with what captures people's interest.

And let's not leave out the laziness factor. Most of us who went into journalism did so for lots of honorable reasons — in my case, an aversion to studying complicated subjects, for example — but we didn't follow this noble path out of a craving for hard work. And covering the centralized city is simply easier than covering the region's ever-more-sprawling 'burbs.

That's all easy for me to say, which is I why I'm saying it. But there is a price to be paid for our city-centric tilt: We distort the city woes, however inadvertently, and understate their corresponding presence in the suburbs.

So, the good news, somewhat, is the newly emphasized news: The suburbs have their fair share of crime and corruption and strained race relations and bigotry and slimy deals with the developers just like the city. In some cases, worse. It's time to give suburbia its due: There's plenty of interesting bad news if we just take the time to look for it.

Maybe we have the Steve Stenger saga to thank for jarring us from our county-coverage complacency — it sure was interesting, and anyone with an ounce of compassion for the media's need for ratings and readership should mourn its passing — but even the post-Stenger era has been far more interesting than anyone could have foreseen. Thankfully, there was a short shelf life for that terrifying moment following Stenger's resignation when politicians and reporters did that creepy ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead group hug, declaring that pay-for-play is dead in St. Louis County and the like.

It isn't. But more important, neither is discrimination against the LGBTQ community and all manner of other issues formerly reserved for more extensive coverage in the presumably more interesting city. At last, the county is getting the headlines it deserves.

How much have things changed? Why, it was only one column ago that I wrote about the $20 million discrimination verdict won by Sgt. Keith Wildhaber and — despite the absence of cries of "Encore!" in the comments' section — I'm feeling a burning need to write about it again.

This tale of stupidity in suburbia just got more stupid, which is saying something. For some reason — layperson naivete, I suppose — I assumed that in the wake of the verdict showing how horribly the county police punished this good cop because of his "gayness" and how foolishly the county counselor's office behaved in letting it get to trial, that a settlement would happen expeditiously.

Certainly, there would be downsides for both sides in a prolonged appeal. Politically, the county and its beleaguered police department need to put this sad saga behind them in a heartbeat. For his part, Wildhaber had plenty of incentive to want to settle, even post-verdict, because the judicial system frowns about large punitive judgments and the law limits them and splits the proceeds with some state fund in the name of tort reform. And looming on the legal front is Missouri's shameful refusal to provide status protection for the LGBTQ community.

It was pretty obvious that Wildhaber and his team would want more than the $850,000 they previously offered to settle the case. But even if the price of poker went up, they'd just get together and get this done quickly and quietly, right?

Not so fast. Perhaps understandably, County Executive Sam Page and the county council had to act quickly to protect themselves by bringing in appellate-law experts for leverage, if not for all-out attack on the verdict. So, in a move that was something less than a stirring vote of confidence in the county counselor's office, they allocated up to $75,000 for the experts at Lewis Rice. Meanwhile, Wildhaber's lawyers, Russ Riggan and Sam Moore, are seeking more than $617,000 in additional fees for having their settlement offers scorned by the county.

Wonderful. Our fellow professional bottom-feeders in the legal profession have taken over. What could possibly go wrong? Page's spokesman emphasized that there's a $75,000 ceiling on what the county would be paying the respected, but not so inexpensive, Lewis Rice attorneys. If you have an over-under betting opportunity on that $75,000 figure, I'd say go with "over." On the bright side, county taxpayers forking out dollars to a law firm headquartered downtown is a form of city-county cooperation, isn't it?

But what a ridiculous situation. What does a "win" look like for St. Louis County? Best case, financially, is to get the whole thing overturned, which would be fine fiscally but send an unmistakable message that persecution of LGBTQ police officers is just fine with the department. (Arguably it is, by the way, as long as Chief Jon Belmar is in charge, which is a really good reason for him no longer being in charge.)

Still, it's hard to imagine that Wildhaber and his team — well aware of the county's financial abilities (widely reported) on one hand, but also the aforementioned realities of the appellate process on the other — would not be amenable to settling. I guess we'll have to stay tuned.

But there's a silver lining: We're covering county news. We've even stumbled upon the kind of tidbit that would be all the rage in a city story: Despite all his heartfelt outrage about LGBTQ discrimination, Page does, it turns out, have a high-profile director of (among other things) "inclusion" who has a little baggage on matters LGBTQ.

That would be former Councilwoman Hazel Erby, the only Democrat to vote against the county's anti-discrimination ordinance in 2012. We the media didn't cover that much because, well, it was just a little county story. In fact, other than a barb from the St. Louis American terming her vote "ignorant and insensitive," the only person actually on record criticizing Mrs. Erby for that — publicly and specifically — was just a little-known political opponent who was challenging her for her council seat in 2014.

That guy was named Wesley Bell, who I believe is now better known as County Prosecutor Wesley Bell. Erby beat him by fifteen points.

Wow. See what we were missing by not covering the county all these years? Got to fix that. Anybody know what's up in Black Jack?

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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