CLAYTON — St. Louis County sued four County Council members Saturday alleging they had illegally taken charge of the seven-member legislative body.
The lawsuit, filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court, asks the court to immediately bar council members Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, and Mark Harder, R-7th District, from acting as chair and vice chair, after they were elected Friday with the support of Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, and Shalonda Webb, D-4th District.
The order would also prevent any further action by Days, Harder, Fitch and Webb to reverse a controversial Jan. 5 vote that kept Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, and Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, as chair and vice chair.
The suit, filed by County Counselor Beth Orwick on behalf of Clancy and Trakas, seeks an action in quo warranto, an unusual legal proceeding prescribed by Missouri law that allows the county to ask a judge to determine which council members were legally elected chair and vice chair.
Clancy claimed the lawsuit was necessary to resolve the dispute. “Since we do not agree with their action and cannot function with two members claiming to be Chair and two members claiming to be Vice Chair, the correct place to resolve this dispute is in the judicial system,” Clancy said in a statement.
Days said she had not read the suit but that she expected to chair the council meeting Tuesday. “As far as I’m concerned I will be running the meeting,” Days said. “I don’t think that this is as serious an issue that we need to go to the courts. I think the four people who voted for this have had their say, and in any world I know of, the majority rules.”
The lawsuit is the latest development in an unprecedented fight over control of the council and county government. Clancy, Trakas and Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, have generally supported County Executive Sam Page; Days, Harder and Fitch have not.
The trouble here was seeded Aug. 4, when Webb beat incumbent Rochelle Walton Gray in the primary. In that same election, voters also approved technical changes to the county charter that delayed the start of county officeholders’ new terms from Jan. 1 to the second Tuesday in January.
The new date fell a week after the council’s first regular Tuesday meeting, when the charter calls for the council to elect a chair and vice chair for the year.
Clancy and Gray, backed by Orwick, argued that Gray’s term, which was originally set to expire in 2020, continued until she was replaced. Because of that interpretation, Gray was allowed to vote at the Jan. 5 meeting. Clancy and Trakas won.
Days, Harder and Fitch objected, arguing that the charter and state constitution limit terms to four years. They characterized the move as an illegal power grab and accused Orwick, a Page appointee, of bias. Webb asked the council to delay the vote until she was seated Jan. 12, arguing Gray’s participation would disenfranchise voters of District 4, which takes in a large section of North County.
The council votes 4-3 to remove Clancy as chair. But Clancy insists the vote is not binding.
On Tuesday, Webb joined Fitch, Harder and Days in voting 4-3 to rescind Clancy’s election as chair. On Friday, the new council majority held a special meeting to elect Days chair and Harder vice chair.
This time, Clancy and Trakas objected, arguing the move was illegal because the charter doesn’t stipulate that a chair can be replaced unless the seat is vacant.
The dispute, between allies and opponents of County Executive Sam Page, appears headed to court.
Their lawsuit also argues they were required to elect leadership at the Jan. 5 meeting, the council’s first of the year.
The court has ordered Fitch, Webb, Harder and Days to respond to the lawsuit before Jan. 21 or face a default judgment.
Harder said he hadn’t yet read the suit, but planned to continue as vice chair in the meantime.
Fitch said the council would proceed at its next meeting Tuesday with Days and Harder in charge.
“We have elected a chair and a vice chair,” Fitch said. “A majority of the council has already done that. And until we’re told by a competent authority otherwise, they are the chair and the vice chair.”
Fitch also questioned Orwick’s role.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the county counselor can sue the county and defend the county at the same time,” he said.
Trakas said he would abide by the court’s ultimate decision.
“People were so entrenched and the positions so divergent the only real way to resolve it is to have a court interpret the charter,” he said. “I will abide by what the court decides and I would hope the others will do the same.”
Page said he supports “letting the courts decide.”
“With the charter change, the council has been left in a difficult situation,” he said in a statement.
The quo warranto suit, while unusual, has been used twice recently in St. Louis County.
In 2018, a special prosecutor filed a quo warranto petition to remove Trakas from office after he was accused of violating the county charter by performing contract legal work for outstate school districts. A judge disagreed.
And in 2019, the county council asked County Prosecutor Wesley Bell to look into whether Steve Stenger, then-county executive, had forfeited his office by skipping council meetings in violation of the county charter. The council passed a resolution asking Bell to file a quo warranto suit. Bell declined.