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Council majority wants to remove Stenger for missing meetings, but Bell isn't likely to help them

Council majority wants to remove Stenger for missing meetings, but Bell isn't likely to help them

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Stenger and St. Louis County Council

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger (left) talks as District 2 St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page (right) listens at the start of a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON • The four Democrats who form a majority on the St. Louis County Council are sponsoring a resolution to remove St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger from office, claiming that he forfeited his office by skipping council meetings in violation of the county charter.

A resolution on the council’s meeting agenda for Tuesday to be introduced by Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District, would direct St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell to file a “quo warranto” lawsuit in St. Louis County Court to ask a judge whether Stenger forfeited his office.

The effort had been on the drawing board for several weeks before appearing on the council’s agenda on Friday. But it immediately found shaky ground as Bell’s chief of staff, Sam Alton, said his boss was not likely to get involved.

“We are dedicated to prosecuting criminals in the pursuit of criminal justice, and it is not our intent to insert ourselves into matters that don’t involve that pursuit,” Alton said.

A legal opinion from an assistant county counselor issued to both Stenger and council members on Friday pointed to several “legal insufficiencies” in the resolution, including that the council lacked the authority to decide Stenger had forfeited his office and to require Bell to take specific actions.

Stenger said in a statement that the resolution was “a political stunt that demonstrates poor judgement and has no legal basis or effect. St. Louis County voters elected me by a 20-point margin in November and I will remain County Executive for at least four years. During this time, I encourage the Council to set aside pettiness and stop trying to circumvent the will of the people.”

The county charter says that if any County Council member is absent from more than four meetings without being excused by resolution of the council, the member’s office is forfeited. The county charter also says the county executive “shall” attend the meetings but does not spell out a penalty for failing to attend.

Stenger missed nine straight meetings from mid-November to early February. While council members have kicked the proposal around behind the scenes, he has attended three in a row. Stenger has called the council a “circus” and claimed he has the discretion to miss its meetings.

The council’s resolution says Stenger “willfully failed to devote his entire time to the duties of his office” and “willfully neglected his official duty” by skipping the meetings. It is co-sponsored by Council Chairman Sam Page and Democrats Lisa Clancy and Hazel Erby.

The council’s three Republicans — Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas — all told the Post-Dispatch they didn’t support the resolution because they questioned whether it was legal under the county charter. Trakas survived last year a quo warranto effort initiated by Bell’s predecessor, Robert P. McCulloch, who wanted a court to decide if Trakas violated the charter by doing contract legal work for outstate school districts. A judge ruled Trakas did not violate the charter.

Page said he expected Bell to “take the resolution under consideration and apply the law” and added, “I suspect the county executive believes he should be attending, too, because the afternoon the (material) was sent to the county counselor’s office to draft the resolution is the same day he started attending council meetings.”

Stenger would become mayor of the merged “metropolitan city” under the consolidation proposal pushed by advocacy group Better Together. The language of the group’s amendment to the state constitution suggests Stenger would become mayor even if he were removed from office before the new, consolidated government formed in 2023.

David Hunn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this article.

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