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Legally binding? St. Louis County Council leadership fight may put future votes at risk

Legally binding? St. Louis County Council leadership fight may put future votes at risk

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CLAYTON — While St. Louis County Council waits for a court to decide whether Councilwoman Lisa Clancy or Councilwoman Rita Heard Days is the legitimate chair, they remain at odds over whether upcoming council actions will be legally binding.

And depending on how the court ultimately rules in the unprecedented legal dispute, it could effectively void a recently enacted law to allow the county’s attorney to contract with outside law firms.

Days, D-1st District, said Monday that she will proceed as chair until a court orders otherwise.

“There is still business to be conducted and I’m prepared to move forward,” she said.

But Clancy, D-5th District, argued that any actions Days takes wouldn’t be legally binding — unless a court rules otherwise.

“Because she’s not the actual chair, the actions won’t be valid,” Clancy said. “I’m confident a judge is going to rule along those lines.”

It was unclear when a court would take up the dispute. As of Monday, the case had yet to be assigned to any judge, according to online court records. Government offices, including courts, were closed in recognition of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

St. Louis County Counselor Beth Orwick petitioned the St. Louis County Circuit Court on Saturday to immediately bar Days and Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, from acting as chair and vice chair. They were elected Friday to the council’s leadership positions with the support of Council members Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, and Shalonda Webb, D-4th District.

The quo warranto petition also asks the court to prevent any further action by Days, Harder, Fitch and Webb to reverse a controversial Jan. 5 vote to retain Clancy as chair for a second year and elect Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, as vice chair.

‘Principles at stake’

The fight over the chairmanship derailed two council meetings last week. On Tuesday, the regular meeting was adjourned early as Fitch and Clancy fought for control. And during a special meeting on Friday, Days and Clancy each attempted to take charge. At both meetings, Clancy said the actions of the new council majority were illegal.

Clancy on Monday declined to say how she would approach the next council meeting.

“I’m not interested in a public spectacle tomorrow night,” she said. “I’m interested in moving forward with council business, so we’ll see.”

Trakas, however, argued that Days and Harder should allow Clancy to take charge.

“I don’t see what’s wrong with the simple approach of allowing Councilwoman Clancy to preside over the meetings for however long it takes the courts to decide,” Trakas said, “instead of sowing rancor in the meetings.”

Harder said legislation on the council agenda “doesn’t have anything to do with who is chair or vice chair, so we’ll get the work done if they’ll allow us to.”

“This is about principles at stake and having equal representation in District 4 in the decisions,” Harder said. “We’re not going to voluntarily step down. It’s going to be up to a judge to decide — if this is something they want to handle.”

The council leadership fight stems from the Jan. 5 meeting, at which lame duck Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray voted for Clancy and Trakas. Gray had been defeated in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary by Webb, but because of a charter change, approved by voters on Aug. 4, Webb’s term didn’t begin until Jan. 12.

Fitch, Days and Harder objected to Gray’s participation in the Jan. 5 meeting, arguing Gray’s term should have expired at the end of 2020. Clancy, Gray, Trakas and Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, disagreed.

Cloud over legislation

Gray was also the tie-breaking vote Jan. 5 on a bill that gives Orwick’s office wider latitude to contract with outside law firms. Page signed the bill into law last week.

The status of that law could be called into question if a court ultimately rules that Gray’s participation was illegal because her term expired, according to council members on both sides of the leadership dispute.

The same ruling would also invalidate votes by Trakas and Dunaway, who served terms on the same schedule but were reelected in November.

Page, through a spokesman, said he considers Clancy chair of the council.

“Dr. Page believes the charter makes it clear who the chair should be and that the Jan. 5 votes were in accordance with the charter,” spokesman Doug Moore said in a statement.

The county executive declined to comment on whether the law allowing Orwick’s office to contract with outside law firms would be voided if the court rules Gray’s vote Jan. 5 was illegal.

“We do not want to speculate before there is a ruling from a judge,” Moore said.

Meanwhile, Fitch, Harder and Webb said they expect to hire outside counsel to represent them in court in the legal dispute. Fitch argued Orwick, whose office is tasked with providing the council legal advice, is effectively representing Clancy and Trakas in the dispute.

“No judge will listen to a case unless both sides have counsel,” Fitch said. “You can’t use the people suing you as your counsel.”

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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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