Hartmann: A County Government Without Honor

The Page administration exposes its ugly side by reneging on its pension settlement with Tim Fitch

Dec 5, 2022 at 5:11 am
click to enlarge The county council has just appealed a settlement over Tim Fitch's pension after reaching an agreement months ago to settle.
The county council has just appealed a settlement over Tim Fitch's pension after reaching an agreement months ago to settle.

County Executive Sam Page provided a preview last week into what four full years of his control of St. Louis County government will look like.

It isn’t pretty.

The county appealed a judge’s order to enforce a settlement that Fitch had apparently reached after courts sided with his pension claim. At issue was whether Fitch should have lost his $85,000 annual pension benefits as a consequence of having been elected to serve on the county council at an annual salary of $20,000.

The county seemed to agree that Fitch should not lose his pension, but then backtracked in August and is now dragging out the court battle.

But the story that matters here has nothing to do with the complex world of pension benefits. And it’s not about Fitch, who did not seek reelection and is leaving county government at year’s end after 35 years of service – including four as a councilman and five as police chief.

No, the story is about honor, because — unlike Fitch — the county administration of Sam Page isn’t going anywhere. And the lack of character and good faith demonstrated by Page’s minions in Fitch’s case should alarm county residents and anyone who interacts with county government.

Fitch and his attorney aren’t willing to discuss the case since it’s pending. Page and his non-communication team don’t answer questions from me on public issues, so I chose not to waste their time or mine inquiring about a matter before the courts.

But we don’t need any of the parties to weigh in. The details are clearly laid out in Judge Jeffrey P. Medler’s “findings of facts” in language that is both clear and stunning.

To my layperson eyes, the smoking gun can be found in paragraph 35 of the judge’s findings in an email sent by attorney Dan Emerson, acting county counselor (so designated when he was contracted by the county to represent it). Here’s Emerson’s August 8 email to Fitch’s attorney, Kim Mathis:

“I apologize, but there was a last-minute change in my marching orders and I'll be filing a Notice of Appeal before tomorrow's deadline. I still see a potential path to settlement with your client, but there is a bigger concern about the ripple effects of the Judgment and its potential effect on the benefits of individuals who accrued time as Councilmembers. Filing the NOA will give us another 30-day window in which the trial court will maintain control of the Judgment until the record on appeal is filed.

“My understanding is that Councilmember [Republican Ernie] Trakas will be proposing legislation to address those issues by amending certain pension ordinances, and that if the amended ordinance passes[,] the County's concerns about the larger issue likely may become academic. I see that is on the 8/9 Council Agenda.

“Again, I'm sorry for this late change of events when we appeared so close to the finish line. I'll see you at the 8/16 hearing.”

This one’s pretty easy to unpack. That’s an email — an apology email, no less — in which Page’s county counselor has openly admitted to Fitch’s counsel of “a change in my marching orders” as to carrying out a settlement agreement that had indeed been settled.

But wait, someone might say, isn’t Beth Orwick the real county counselor who was appointed by Page in 2019? Orwick recused herself because of a conflict presented by her office representing Page.

Well, it seems Judge Medler has an answer for that as well. “On every pleading filed with this court, County Counselor Emerson has stepped into the shoes of Beth Orwick and included his title on the signature blocks. All authority Beth Orwick possesses with respect to settlement agreements generally, County Counselor Emerson possesses with respect to the settlement in the instant case.

“County Counselor Dan Emerson has authority because he stands in the shoes of Defendants/Respondents and is also an attorney. He is presumed to have authority from the County to settle the matter, which is exactly what he did.”

So, if that’s the case — and who am I to argue with the judge? — who might be giving “marching orders” to Emerson? I’ve got it down to two suspects: Sam Page and the Tooth Fairy.

Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy?

Emerson filed a new Notice of Appeal on November 22 that states that the issues expected to be raised on appeal are claims that the judge erred in “granting the permanent writ of mandamus ” and in “enforcing the purported settlement agreement among the parties.”

I’ll bow out of that argument, and not just because I don’t know a writ of mandamus from third base. What’s interesting here has nothing to do with pension law or the quality of Medler’s judging. It’s that pesky integrity thing.

Here’s more from Medler on that:

“Unrefuted evidence was presented that on July 18, Emerson contact[ed] Mathis via telephone and informed her that the County was interested in settling the case by paying Chief Fitch his unpaid pension and making an offer to pay some or most of his attorneys’ fees and costs in order to put the case behind them.”

And there was this:

“By at least August 4, 2022, the parties had reached a settlement agreement that included an agreement that Chief Fitch would be paid his pension benefits, Defendants/Respondents would not appeal the case, and an agreement as to attorneys’ fees and costs.”

That was four days before Emerson’s “change of marching orders” email to Mathis.

The judge also referenced details of other communications between the parties that had hammered out attorneys’ fees and the like. And he added this:

“There was a clear meeting of the minds here. The terms of the agreement are without question. The parties fully agreed on all material (and even non-material) matters involving settlement.” There’s more where that came from, but county residents have no reason or interest to explore nuances of pension or settlement law. One needn’t have a law degree to understand the basics of this dispute.

On its face, it has always seemed absurd that Fitch or anyone else should sacrifice pension benefits earned as a county employee as a penalty for getting elected to the county council. That’s a common-sense position, not a legal one. And the only reason this is even an issue is that Republican Fitch and Democrats, including Page, are fierce political enemies.

There is some irony in the Democrats stealing a page here (so to speak) from the national Republican playbook that misrepresents Social Security benefits as an “entitlement” — rather than what they are, which is something that was earned. County pension benefits are earned, and expecting to receive them is not an act of wrongdoing. But reneging on a deal is a form of wrongdoing. And there’s no question that it happened here.

That signals a problem that apparently will outlast Tim Fitch in county government for at least four years.

Ray Hartmann founded the
Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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