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‘An end to bitter politics’: Page pledges cooperation for all St. Louis County residents

‘An end to bitter politics’: Page pledges cooperation for all St. Louis County residents

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CLAYTON — Pledging more cooperation and inclusion, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page was sworn in Tuesday as chief executive of the state’s most populous county.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Burton administered the oath.

Page, 55, will complete the remaining two years of former executive Steve Stenger’s term. The St. Louis County Council voted to elevate Page in 2019 after Stenger was indicted in a federal pay-to-play case and resigned. 

The incumbent defeated three challengers in the Democratic primary on Aug. 4, then coasted to victory in the Nov. 3 general election.  

Page campaigned during a year marked by overlapping crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial divisions within the county police department, and an economic recession. He faced fierce criticism from political opponents, including some council members who had been allies during Stenger’s tenure.  

In a speech Tuesday, Page struck an optimistic tone, calling for “an end to bitter politics of the past.”

The county’s inauguration ceremony, which was streamed online, took place less than a week after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn the national election. 

“In recent years, our nation has been divided by hatred, hostility, and ignorance,” Page said. “And, last week, that division almost tore us apart. Let us learn from that dark moment. Let us put the dark days of division behind us. Let us put an end to the bitter politics of the past.”

Page said his administration had to make difficult decisions since he was appointed executive, beginning with a series of measures intended to restore confidence in county government after Stenger’s corruption was exposed. Following a verdict against the county in a workplace discrimination lawsuit from a gay police sergeant, Page replaced most of the Board of Police Commissioners and police Chief Jon Belmar retired. Page, a medical doctor, enforced a stay-at-home order within days of the COVID-19 pandemic’s start, and has remained more cautious than other regional governments about easing restrictions on activities.

“The past couple of years have required us to take strong stands on hard issues,” Page said.

But as Page exercised authority over health orders and the disbursement of federal relief funds, his enemies branded him a tyrant. Businesses challenged county health orders and parents protested restrictions on youth sports outside Page's home.

And after a spring and summer that saw protests break out across the region and nation, the police department faces strident calls for reform even as it grapples with racial tensions among its rank and file

Page vowed to hold to health experts’ recommendations to limiting the spread of the coronavirus. And he said he would take up reforms suggested by a business-funded six-month study of the police department

“Working with the Board of Police Commissioners, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, police leaders, and other stakeholders, we will make sure the recent expert report is implemented to improve policing, to reduce crime and racial tension, and to rebuild our community’s trust in law enforcement,” Page said. 

Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, who won election in November to a second term, and Councilwoman-elect Shalonda Webb, D-4th District, the council’s newest member, also were sworn in during the virtual inauguration ceremony.

Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, who also won reelection in November to a four-year term, did not appear at the ceremony Tuesday. Dunaway’s ceremony was private, county officials said. 

Dunaway said she opted for a private ceremony Tuesday after her decision in 2019 to be sworn in using a Dr. Seuss book garnered attention from national press. Dunaway, who was elected to complete Page’s term on the council, said she selected the book, in part, because of her young children.

 

On Tuesday, Dunaway said she did not select any text to put her left hand on when she was sworn in by Diann Valenti, county clerk and acting administrative director. The brief private ceremony was recorded for public records, she said. 

Trakas and Webb, like Page, also called for calming political tension in county government in their speeches.

But division on the council between Page’s allies, including Trakas and Dunaway, and opponents appeared unlikely to wane anytime soon.

Council members Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, Mark Harder, R-7th District, and Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, are expected to attempt to challenge a 4-3 vote last week to retain Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, as chair of the seven-member council.

Clancy was elected with the support of lame duck councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, whose term was set to expire at the end of 2020 — except for a charter change that delayed the swearing-in of new county officeholders until the second Tuesday of January.

Based on a county counselor’s opinion, Clancy and Gray saw the charter change as an opportunity to extend Gray’s tenure on the council and allow her to vote at the Jan. 5 meeting.

Clancy’s opponents want to revisit that decision on Tuesday — and a vote by Webb, who replaced Gray, could be pivotal.

Webb, who had criticized the vote as disenfranchising her voters, declined Monday to say where she would lend her support.

“I think I’ll listen to the voices of North County,” she told the Post-Dispatch Monday, “and make a decision accordingly at that time.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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