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St. Louis County Council shoots down two bills aimed at limiting Page's authority

St. Louis County Council shoots down two bills aimed at limiting Page's authority

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St. Louis County Council

The St. Louis County Council meets on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, via Cisco Webex software. (Screengrab.)

CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday shot down two bills aimed at limiting the powers of the county executive and the health department during a pandemic, a victory for County Executive Sam Page at a time when some county residents are protesting how he’s used those powers.

One bill would have required approval from more than two-thirds of the County Council to extend a state of emergency declared by the county executive beyond 15 days and would have allowed the council to decide how long the emergency should last. The other bill would have required two-thirds of the council members’ approval to extend orders from the director or acting director of the health department.

The bills had support among some of the hundreds of county residents who have picketed Page’s home in Creve Coeur and the county government building in Clayton in recent days to protest his recent decisions limiting competitions for youth sports.

It appeared to be more than a grassroots campaign to get the bills passed. Some county residents got automated calls claiming to be from the father of a high school athlete and urging them to press 1 to be connected directly to the County Council to urge its members to pass the bills. It was not clear late Tuesday who was behind it or how many calls came through to the council.

The council on Tuesday voted 4-3 against taking up the bills, which were proposed by council members Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, and Mark Harder, R-7th District. Other versions of the bills remained in limbo on the council agenda but did not appear to have enough support to advance.

Just before the meeting, County Counselor Beth Orwick issued a six-page opinion to council members that the bills would not be enforceable because the powers of the executive and health department are laid out by the county charter, the constitution-like document that defines the organization, powers and functions of the county government.

Based on the memo, Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, questioned whether the council should proceed. Fitch said he wanted to.

Republican Ernie Trakas said Orwick’s memo was enough for him not to support the measure. He joined Clancy, and Democrats Rochelle Walton Gray and Kelli Dunaway to defeat the bills, over the votes of his two Republican colleagues and Democrat Rita Heard Days.

Dunaway ripped the Republicans as having downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and having mocked mitigation efforts “as simple as wearing masks.” She said the GOP “now want us to believe they should have an outsized voice in how to proceed in a future public health crisis.”

The vote put a spotlight on an emerging dynamic in county government. The Democratic county executive has seemingly lost support of Days, D-1st District, one of the four Democrats in a council majority that has backed him for most of the past year, and whom Lisa Clancy described as part of her “#squad” shortly after assuming the council chair in January.

That has put more pressure on Trakas, R-6th District, to step up for Page, the former council chairman with whom he forged a friendship during their battles with former County Executive Steve Stenger from mid-2017 until Stenger resigned in April 2019 amid a pay-to-play scandal.

Days emerged this summer as the council’s most critical voice of Page’s management of the coronavirus crisis and has begun to strategize with the Republicans on measures opposing him. She introduced a bill on Tuesday that would seize control of $173.5 million in federal relief dollars, which the council voted in April to give Page full authority to spend. Days, who was one of the four Democrats who supported that action over the three Republicans, now says she regrets her vote.

Days’ split has made Trakas a swing vote between Page loyalists and detractors. Although he had been the most bitterly opposed in April to ceding the council’s traditional legislative oversight, he told colleagues in a Sept. 9 email that the council could not legally undo the action.

But Trakas also later joined Harder, Fitch and Days to support a nonbinding resolution urging Page to “encourage all elementary schools in the County to resume in-person instruction posthaste.” Clancy, Dunaway and Walton Gray voted against it.

The resolution also encouraged all school districts to resume in-person instruction for kindergarten through fifth grade and demanded that Page and the county health department “establish and publish clear attainable targets for when middle and high school in-person instruction should resume.”

Tuesday’s regular council meeting featured an unprecedented number of comments — 344 — submitted by members of the public. The council asked its staff to read about two hours worth into the public record but said it would publish the rest in its weekly journal.

The comments almost uniformly criticized Page for continued restrictions on youth sports that has kept restrictions on games and tournaments for teenagers and high-contact sports like football.

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