CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday called for the ouster of acting Public Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan, voting 5-2 to adopt a nonbinding recommendation that County Executive Sam Page reject his formal appointment to lead the department.
Page defended the public health director and said Khan would remain in his position.
The vote was the latest development in a bitter political fight between Page and a bipartisan council majority of his critics who have opposed public health orders issued by Khan for the county. The fight was revived last week when Khan sent an email thanking employees and telling them “to ignore the lunatic fringe” opposing public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The email last week came months after a tense council meeting on July 27, when the same majority who voted Tuesday to reject Khan’s confirmation — Rita Days, Tim Fitch, Mark Harder, Shalonda Webb and Ernie Trakas — voted to rescind a public masking requirement Khan had issued the day before.
After the July meeting, Khan was captured on surveillance cameras making an obscene gesture at protesters in the lobby of council chambers while leaving the building.
In a blistering letter he sent to Days on July 28, the day after that meeting, Khan accused several members of the audience of heckling him, making racist comments and “shoulder-bumping” him as he left — accusations that were not corroborated by several videos of the meeting or testimony from police officers at the meeting. Page has said he “reprimanded” Khan for the gesture but repeatedly denied council access to an internal report on their meeting. Khan apologized to Days in an email, but Fitch and Harder called for his ouster.
Almost every week since the July meeting, angry crowds have packed council chambers in Clayton to oppose the mask requirement, as well as any government effort to vaccinate people against COVID-19. Some have denied the existence of the pandemic that has killed more than 15,000 Missourians. Several claimed the pandemic was a government conspiracy, calling vaccines a “bioweapon” and “poison” and people who support the public health measures “sheeple” or “Covidiots.”
But council members on Tuesday blasted Khan’s email last week and said it showed a serious failure to act professionally under pressure.
Days said Khan had twice shown “a very unprofessional attitude.”
“I think this kind of behavior and putting it in writing, go behind a door if you have to say it, but for heaven’s sake, don’t put this thing in writing for the whole world to see,” Days said. “It’s irresponsible. It’s unprofessional, and it has no place in St. Louis County government.”
Page said he had reprimanded Khan for his comments but defended Khan’s public health decisions.
“I don’t believe that Dr. Khan was inaccurate in characterizing his experience before the council several months ago. ... I recognize the great deal of pressure he’s under as all public health officials in America are at this point in history,” Page said.
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, who along with Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, voted to support Khan’s confirmation, argued that Khan had the support of a majority of county residents who agree with public health measures.
“While Dr. Khan has made questionable choices in how he has chosen to air those frustrations in previous months, he has never wavered from what is best for the public health in this community and everyone in it,” Clancy said. “He has my confidence, and he has the confidence of many of my constituents who as I’ve shared before, have felt shut out of these meetings, and the discussion on this council.”
Earlier Tuesday, Page sent an email to all county employees reminding them to “treat and talk about our constituents respectfully.” The email did not mention Khan.
Fitch and Harder grilled Page over the email in a lengthy exchange, demanding that Page outline why he wouldn’t fire Khan. Webb had initially paused before casting her vote. She said afterward that she liked Khan personally but ultimately said he had failed to show leadership.
“Understanding how Dr. Khan wanted to express he has his employees’ backs ... as a leader you have to be responsible in how you communicate that in order to ensure you don’t stoke another situation,” Webb said.
Harder asked Page: “Is there a threshold that someone has to cross to force a resignation in your administration?”
Page, in response, said it was a “case-by-case basis,” arguing that Harder and Fitch sought to oust Khan because they disagreed with public health orders.
“Dr. Khan has a difficult job in implementing the policy of my administration and the recommendations of public health experts, and I know that is not consistent with your beliefs,” Page said. “And I believe it colors your interpretation of his performance. But moving forward I’m going to ask Dr. Khan to continue to do a very difficult job in a very difficult time in the history of our country.”
Mask vote delayed
The council also delayed a vote on whether to issue a mask mandate.
Clancy asked the council to consider the issue, referring to a draft health order that Khan sent to the legislative body Tuesday morning that would require vaccinated and unvaccinated people ages 5 and older to wear masks in public spaces indoors and on public transit.
But Trakas, Harder and Fitch objected to a vote, saying it would violate state public meetings laws because the requested mask order itself did not appear on the meeting agenda. Days agreed.