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Judge strikes one St. Louis County ballot question on campaign contributions, but other two are OK

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CLAYTON • A judge on Tuesday night struck one of three proposed St. Louis County charter amendments from the Aug. 7 ballot.

The ballot questions had been challenged in circuit court by a county resident who claimed they were too vague and confusing to be put before voters.

The question struck by Judge Gael D. Wood would have asked if voters wanted to put a $2,600-per-election campaign limit on contributions by any individual or entity to a candidate for a county elected office, and would have restricted the ability of county contractors to make political contributions.

It also would have given the County Council the authority to transfer money within the county budget without the approval of the county executive, and would require the county executive to get council approval for making transfers within a county department.

But the other two ballot questions are valid, and the votes will be counted, the judge ruled.

Find out what will be on your ballot on Aug. 7

The ballot measures that are still valid are:

• Asking voters if the County Council should be able to hire its own lawyers in certain cases when it is at odds with the county’s executive branch, which oversees the county’s legal staff.

• Asking voters to amend the county charter to specify that banning County Council members from holding other governmental employment doesn’t prevent them from performing independent contract work for other governments.

All three issues will appear on the ballot because absentee voting has begun. Wood ruled voters would be instructed at the polls to disregard the campaign contribution issue.

The complaint accuses the council of “logrolling” proposed changes to the charter that voters might support, such as limits to donations to political campaigns, with others they might not, such as giving the council the power to transfer county money.

But Wood ruled that he didn’t even need to consider that claim. The wording in the question he struck was unclear because it used the word “interdepartmental” instead of “intradepartmental” when discussing the fund transfers. That was enough to strike it, he ruled.

The other questions were not “illegally insufficient, unfair or misleading,” Wood ruled.

The ballot questions were each approved 6-1 by the St. Louis County Council on May 29 in votes that overrode vetoes by County Executive Steve Stenger.

Wood, a retired judge from Franklin County, was assigned by the Supreme Court to hear the case after the presiding judge in St. Louis County recused all judges in the circuit. No explanation for recusal was provided; the judges may have felt a conflict because one of the amendments would bolster the council’s power to make budgetary changes, and the council sets the circuit’s budget.

The plaintiff is Jordan Grommet, 22, of Kirkwood, but the force behind it is his attorney, John Watson, of Jefferson City, former chief of staff for then-Gov. Jay Nixon. Watson said he initiated the lawsuit because he believed the ballot questions were too vague and confusing to be placed before voters.

A previous version of this story had an incorrect day of the ruling; the judge’s decision was issued on Tuesday night.

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