CLAYTON — A group of mayors and city officials from across St. Louis County are pushing for changes to county government they say will help prevent Steve Stenger-style corruption from happening again.
Those officials want to reform the government by having it run the same way as many large suburbs in the area — by placing a hired professional at the helm and weakening or eliminating the county executive position.
Think of it as a municipal version of a publicly-traded corporation. The manager is like a corporate CEO who runs the company and serves at the pleasure of a board of directors elected by shareholders.
In a “council-manager” form of government, a manager or administrator is typically trained to run local government, with degrees and credentials in public administration, who prepares the budget, runs departments and carries out the council’s policies. Because the manager is not elected, in theory, the position is more insulated from politics and less susceptible to corruption. But it can be more prone to council members’ whims.
A council-manager government is the most radical change under consideration by the St. Louis County Charter Commission, a 14-member body that has met weekly since February to study potential changes to the county charter, the constitution-like document that governs the county. It was not immediately clear whether the measure would have majority support on the commission, but several members said they would carefully consider the proposal.
The question of whether to impanel a charter commission is automatically on the ballot every decade in years ending in eight. Voters approved the creation of the charter commission in November, sending a clear message that it was time for fundamental changes to how the county operates. Under the charter, the commission has until Dec. 31 to come up with changes to the charter. If at least nine members agree on revisions, those would go to county voters in 2020.
On Wednesday, mayors and city managers and administrators from the cities of Sunset Hills, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, Clayton, Richmond Heights, Des Peres, Olivette and others packed the charter commission’s chambers to pitch the change.
Stenger, who will start a 46-month prison term next month after conviction in a federal pay-to-play sting, was not present. But the impact from his four years, three months, 28 days and nine hours as county executive was palpable.
Changing to a council-manager form “takes the politics and replaces it with professionalism, and we do need that all across our region,” Clayton Mayor Michelle Harris told the charter commission. “It’s not about who supported me in my last campaign, which is inevitable if you’re running for office, it’s hard not to think about that.”
Crestwood Mayor Grant Mabie said, “Without structural reforms, you’re setting yourself up for a repeat, because setting aside the criminality of the … Stenger administration, the guardrails are not currently in place to prevent someone with similar ethical challenges from going down a similar dark path.”
Not everyone agrees the change is needed.
“The charter seemed to work well before ... Stenger took office, but it’s always important to consider new ideas,” Doug Moore, a spokesman for County Executive Sam Page, said on Friday in a text. “Whether the County should experiment with a government structure often used by small municipalities is a new idea the commission should consider in a bipartisan way.
“Maintaining the County’s standing as the economic engine of Missouri, though, may require us to maintain a more normal county government model until the state changes the structure for all similar counties.”
The council-manager government is one of two main forms of local government in the United States, and is commonly found in suburbs and cities like Austin and San Diego that have grown quickly in recent decades. It is also common in county governments, with about 40% of U.S. counties having an appointed administrator instead of an elected executive. In St. Louis County, 37 of the 88 municipalities have a council-manager form of government.
The other main form of government is “mayor-council,” in which both an executive and a legislative council are elected by voters. The five biggest U.S. cities, and 17 of the top 25, have this form, according to the Strong Mayor-Council Institute.
St. Louis and St. Louis County are each said to have “mayor-council” forms with “strong” executives, in that the mayor or executive has formal authority outside the council, although the St. Louis mayor’s powers are diluted by independently elected officials, such as the comptroller and treasurer, who carry out some executive functions.
A few St. Louis County charter commission members noted that the change would be controversial and that if it ended up on the ballot, there would would likely be a campaign against it.
“I would guess that it’s not going to pass,” said Courtney Allen Curtis, a charter commission member.
Sarah Crosley, another charter commission member, said she’d like to “get a stronger idea of the pulse of the county.
“If they believe that this form of government would restore more trust in the county, that would be a helpful thing for us to consider,” she said.
Some suggested making less dramatic tweaks to the charter, disagreeing that Stenger was anything more than an aberration. And some said they were concerned that underrepresented people could lose a voice if more power were to be transferred to an official who was not elected.
“I did not see one African American person who stood up in their room that said they were a city manager,” said charter commission member Tony Weaver Jr., who is black and who works as a legislative aide to Rochelle Walton Gray, one of two African Americans on the council.
Commission member Colleen Wasinger told Weaver that inclusion was a reason to consider hiring a county manager. “We are trying to take the first step to meaningful change to make sure that people are given equal opportunity to apply for these positions,” she said. “That’s what a professional would do. They’re going to allow equal opportunity for all.”
Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, said in an interview that the change made sense. The county would be run better by an official who is trained in running a government, unlike Stenger, “who didn’t know diddly-squat about running a government, and he proved it.”
He noted that “the people against it will say you are taking control away from the people.”
Several mayors told the charter commission about long-lasting relationships with trusted administrators. Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch told the charter commission, “You need to think about the functions of what we do. We do roads and police and fire and basic things that affect the quality of life on an everyday basis and understanding budgets and even things like the difference between asphalt and concrete.
“All of that stuff is fairly complicated. Our cities are complicated places and it’s nice to have management that is educated and professional and skilled and experienced to take care of that.”
Martha Duchild, a Crestwood resident, said, “We cannot ignore the glaring fact that this charter had just as much a role in aiding and abetting (Stenger’s) crimes, as did his co-conspirators.”
She added: “It would be irresponsible for this commission to respond to the harm caused to county residents as a result of Mr. Stenger’s actions by leaving intact the government structure currently delineated in the county charter, the very structure which enabled him to carry out his illegal actions and left legislators with little recourse to hold him accountable.”
Note: The story was updated to correct the spelling of Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch.