Jobs in Jeopardy as County Council Squabbles Over Funding

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, shown in a file photo. - LEXIE MILLER
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, shown in a file photo.

Basic matters of how County Executive Sam Page staffs his office and pays some of his appointees are likely to become hotly contested issues in the coming weeks.

At Tuesday's County Council meeting, Councilman Tim Fitch (R-Manchester) introduced legislation calling for a county charter amendment that would prevent a county-executive appointee from serving in their role for more than two months without having been confirmed by the County Council.

"[Sam Page] doesn't care about the confirmation process," Fitch tells the RFT. "Every other county executive, if the council ever turned someone down for confirmation, the county executive would find someone else.”

Fitch says Page has kept appointees Faisal Khan and Charlie Dooley on in "acting" capacities after their nominations failed to be confirmed by the council. Khan is the acting county health director and Dooley, who used to have Page's job from 2003 to 2015, sits on a board that oversees the Dome at America's Center.

If Fitch's charter amendment is approved by the voters in August, Page would, in all likelihood, have to appoint two different individuals to those positions.

Doug Moore, chief communications officer for St. Louis County and member of Page's senior leadership team, tells the RFT: "No longer eligible to be a council member, Mr. Fitch plans to use his last few months in office to bring as much attention to himself as possible, not caring what damage he does to county government along the way. This proposal is a perfect example: Mr. Fitch did not support putting in place public-health measures to protect residents from COVID-19, so he is targeting Dr. Khan."

Moore adds: "But the bigger picture is this: Retaining and recruiting department leaders will become challenging, and services residents rely on could be compromised. This would essentially give department heads seven bosses instead of one."

The "seven bosses" refers to the seven members of the County Council.

Ernie Trakas (R-Mehlville) is not on board with his fellow Republicans proposed legislation, saying he is worried about its unintended consequences.

"Say I'm a highly qualified, highly sought after individual. Do I risk leaving my current job for what could amount to be only a 60-day appointment?" Trakas asks.

Also at Tuesday's meeting, Councilwoman Rita Days (D-Ferguson) introduced a bill that would increase the appropriation to Page's office by a little more than $3 million. This is in response to Proposition A, which voters passed in April. The proposition requires that the salaries of employees appointed by the county executive come from the county executive's budget.

For instance, Director of County Parks and Recreations Tom Ott was appointed by Page but Ott's salary came from the parks department.

Now, after Prop A's passage, Ott still has the same job, but his salary will have to come from the county executive's budget.
The move was supported by a 2020 county audit done by state auditor Nicole Galloway, who said in a report it would be good for transparency if all of the people who worked in the county executive's office were on the executive’s budget.

Now, some worry the banal matter of who gets paid by whom will be politicized, disrupting the county government's ability to function.

"Most people saw [Prop A] as a way to make it clear who reported to who," says Moore. "But what's really happened is it's jeopardizing several county employees."

Moore says this because, in addition to introducing the bill appropriating the funds, Days has also requested the bill be discussed at a committee of the whole meeting next week. In St. Louis County, a bill goes through the committee of the whole when a council member has questions or concerns about it.

In this case, Days wants to know where the $3 million is coming from.

"What is the plan? We don't have that yet. How is this going to affect the departments?" she tells the RFT.

Days adds: "We asked for a list of positions [that are affected by Prop A] and several of them were vacant. The appropriate question then is, do you really need this position? Can you assign those duties to someone else?"

About next week's meeting relating to the bill, Fitch says: "[Sam Page] has got quite a few vacant positions. And budgets being the way they are today, I think one of the things we have to look at is, do we really have to transfer that much money over to his budget or not? Some of those positions have been vacant for a while. Maybe we just keep them vacant."
click to enlarge Councilman Tim Fitch promoting new efforts to curb thefts from cars in November 2021. - RYAN KRULL
Councilman Tim Fitch promoting new efforts to curb thefts from cars in November 2021.

Multiple people with Sam Page's office expressed frustration that such basics of governing, like appointing people and paying them, were being subjected to what one staffer called political "antics."

"The county executive and the county council don't exactly get along," says Moore. "The council likes to do whatever they can to poke Page when they can, and this is probably gonna be one of those instances."

Right now, Page's office says that the 33 positions affected by Prop A are funded through the end of June. But more money needs to be appropriated into the county executive's budget by then in order for the county government to remain functioning smoothly.

"We've had tough conversations with folks on our staff, but all of them understand," said Cal Harris, Page's chief of staff. "They're putting purpose ahead of politics."

Trakas says that he thinks moving the money should be a "no brainer."

"The budget for this year was already decided when [Prop A] was passed, so obviously, now money has to be moved," Trakas says. "I don't see any reason to politicize that."
Charlie Dooley, the former county executive, says there has been a growing culture of distrust in county government in recent years. "Ever since the previous county executive left under unusual circumstances, the council has not been the same since," he tells the RFT.

Dooley is referring to former County Executive Steve Stegner, whose "unusual" departure from that role in 2019 included later pleading guilty to three felonies resulting from a Federal corruption investigation.

Dooley adds: "Now the council says, I don't trust who's been elected to that post. And by the way, before you do anything, you gotta check with me. The council meets once a week. You cannot run a county and meet once a week. That's why you have an executive."

Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway (D-Maryland Heights) called the politicking with Page's staffing and budget "horrible."

"I came here to get shit done to work for the people. But I can't get shit done because we spend all of our limited time and energy putting out fires they started." They being "the anti-Sam Page crowd," Dunaway says.

Trakas says that looking ahead, he sees little cause for optimism:.

"I don't see anything being any different for the rest of this year. I don't know how to describe it other than intermittent governing. Everyone has their own agenda. And there's not a lot of interest in communicating and collaborating."

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About The Author

Ryan Krull

Ryan Krull is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times. Find him on Twitter @ryanwkrull
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