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St. Louis County Council overrides County Executive Stenger's veto

St. Louis County Council members Sam Page (left) and Hazel Erby take part in a meeting where the council overrode St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's veto of five bills on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. Several council members, including Page, also attacked Stenger for not being present at the meeting. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON • A St. Louis County resident has filed a lawsuit in circuit court to block three county charter amendments from appearing on the August primary ballot.

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

The plaintiff is Jordan Grommet, 22, of Kirkwood, a 2018 Purdue University graduate. His attorney is John Watson, former chief of staff for then-Gov. Jay Nixon. Watson also briefly served as state auditor after the suicide of Tom Schweich in 2015.

Watson, of Jefferson City, said in an interview that he initiated the lawsuit out of his own belief that the ballot questions were too vague and confusing to be placed before voters, and he wanted to intervene on behalf of voters to get the proposals off the ballot.

He said Grommet was a friend of his daughter who agreed to serve as a plaintiff because he lived in St. Louis County. Grommet said in an interview that he agreed because it was “no major inconvenience to me and I agreed with what it stood for.”

Asked why he was inserting himself into an issue in St. Louis County, Watson said he’d had multiple conversations with people in the St. Louis area about the ballot questions, but he declined to identify specific people he had talked with.

He said that neither County Executive Steve Stenger nor anyone associated with his campaign was among them.

In a brief hearing on Wednesday in St. Louis County Circuit Court, Judge Nancy Watkins McLaughlin set another hearing for June 22. After that week, under state law, the courts cannot intervene in an election.

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.

“Voters should not have to go out of their way to figure out what’s going on the ballot,” Watson said. He noted that to meet the deadline to place the questions on the ballot, the County Council had to move up its May 29 meeting by several hours. “There was a lot of hurry-up to put something together.”

Watson said he anticipated questions about whether Stenger was pulling the strings. Watson said that while he was part of the Nixon administration, he had met Stenger only once in a brief introduction.

Stenger denied he had anything to do with the legal challenge.

Sam Page, County Council chairman, said in an interview that he didn’t believe that. It “wasn’t the first time the county executive used a false front to pursue his agenda,” he said.

Stenger shot back in a text that he had “genuine concern” for Page and that connecting him to the lawsuit was “the stuff of black helicopters.”

The three ballot questions were among five measures vetoed by Stenger and then overridden by the council on May 29.

One ballot question would have asked voters to allow the County Council 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.

Stenger has said the county counselor, who reports to him, has done an adequate job of representing both branches.

The council also overrode a Stenger veto on legislation that would have asked county voters on Aug. 7 to set a $2,600 contribution limit to candidates for county office and restrict contributions from entities competing for county contracts. The charter amendment also would have expanded the council’s authority to unilaterally transfer money without the executive’s approval.

Stenger said he supported the contribution limits but said that the measure “does not go far enough in that it fails to address wealthy, self-funding candidates,” a clear jab at his primary opponent, Mark Mantovani. And he said allowing the council to make fund transfers would “eviscerate” governmental checks and balances.

Stenger had vetoed another measure that would ask voters to change the definition of “employment” in the county charter to the same test established under state law that distinguishes employees from independent contractors. The measure would clear up questions such as the one that threatens to end Councilman Ernie Trakas’ tenure on the council. Last month, a special prosecutor asked a judge to remove Trakas because he performs contract legal work for three outstate school districts. The county charter bars council members from any other governmental employment. A hearing is set for June 28 in St. Charles County Circuit Court before Judge Dan Pelikan.

Grommet named the Board of Elections as the defendant in the case, but a lawyer representing the board told Watkins he would try to add St. Louis County as a defendant; the judge said she would consider the request.

Adding St. Louis County as a monolithic defendant could put the spotlight on the council’s tug-of-war with Stenger over legal representation. Stenger vetoed on May 30 two more measures by the council to hire its own lawyers. The council is likely to override the vetoes at its next regular meeting on Tuesday.

Page said it should be clear that Stenger and the council could not share a legal staff when they were at odds. County Counselor Peter Krane “would defend the county executive’s position and not the County Council’s position or he would be out of a job,” Page said.

Note: A previous version of this story had scrambled the order of Judge Nancy Watkins McLaughlin's name

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Jeremy Kohler is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.