A spat over where to build a new MetroLink line put on display what most insiders already knew: the St. Louis mayor and St. Louis County executive will never be Best Friends Forever.
For more than a decade, Mayor Francis Slay stood arm in arm with County Executive Charlie Dooley. The two built a solid working relationship and often appeared at regional events calling each other “my good friend.”
But things changed when Dooley was defeated by Steve Stenger in the 2014 Democratic primary. Slay, also a Democrat, had provided considerable support for his old friend, Dooley, creating a more complicated relationship with the county’s next top elected officeholder.
That came into full view last month when Stenger penned a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, saying he would not back the Slay-endorsed north-south MetroLink route until other proposed routes are studied. The letter came in response to a $530,000 grant application to study the route that included Slay’s signature.
Soon after, they both fired off messages on Twitter. Stenger wrote:
“When one group declares regional priorities to the exclusion of key stakeholders we become divided.”
When one group declares regional priorities to the exclusion of key stakeholders we become divided.— Steve Stenger (@StengerSTLCo) June 23, 2016
Slay mentioned a local pastor, saying: “Thanks to @RevStarsky for reminding us that the region has a plan to move forward. It includes N/S MetroLink.”
Stenger followed up by seeking $3 million to study three other MetroLink routes, but not the north-south expansion.
Slay’s chief of staff, Mary Ellen Ponder, declined to comment on the mayor’s relationship with Stenger, and the mayor’s office wouldn’t make him available for an interview.
Stenger in an interview insisted that his relationship with Slay is “very cordial” and “we get along just fine,” although he acknowledged that Dooley and the mayor had a “different dynamic.”
Stenger added that it’s “not a dynamic I wish to partake in.”
Stenger said it’s unreasonable to think that he and Slay are going to agree on everything, noting that they represent “separate jurisdictions that have separate interests and separate constituencies.”
He said regional leaders just don’t see eye to eye all the time. “And it’s going to be like that with the new mayor,” referring to whoever succeeds Slay, who isn’t seeking re-election next year.
He said he confers alone with Slay at least monthly at meetings of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, and the two consult regularly about matters before regional agencies in general.
The pair also find themselves in each other’s company at ceremonial events. “We go voluntarily,” he said.
He said MetroLink and the county position on a new stadium for the Rams were the only instances on which he and Slay have publicly distanced themselves.
Gene McNary, a Republican who was county executive from 1975 to 1989, said of the Slay-Stenger relationship: “I know it’s a problem, and I like them both.”
McNary said Slay’s decision not to seek another term gives him the opportunity to pursue more bold initiatives with little fear.
“Francis is kind of in a position to do things in his last year that politically might have been off the table for him in the past,” McNary said. “He’s aggressive. He has to deal with all kinds of other issues. He has high crime. He needs regional support.”
Nancy Rice, executive director of Better Together — a group promoting regional consolidation — said cooperation between any mayor and county executive is “critically important if you want to do anything beyond” minor ministerial activity.
“Everything big that’s ever happened here has been done through collaboration,” said Rice, who was a top aide to Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., who was mayor from 1981 to 1993.
Among other things, she cited Schoemehl and McNary’s decision to combine the city and county public hospitals for the poor in the mid-1980s.
That was a product of the close working relationship the two had for several years.
However, it deteriorated significantly when the two clashed over where to locate a new football stadium to try to keep the football Cardinals in St. Louis. McNary pushed a site in Maryland Heights.
Rice said it’s too soon to know the extent of the Slay-Stenger discord.
“Having a robust debate about (MetroLink) is not unexpected or out of line,” she said. “I just hope communication will stay open.”
MetroLink also was a contentious issue in the late 1990s when Mayor Clarence Harmon and County Executive Buzz Westfall disagreed on the exact route the line would take between downtown and Clayton.
That didn’t keep those two from cooperating on other matters, recalled Mike Jones, who was a top aide to Harmon and later a key assistant to Dooley in the county.
“You disagree without becoming disagreeable,” Jones said. “It’s always better to be getting along than not getting along, but the price of peace can’t be too expensive. What you’re looking for is an equilibrium.”
Jones said he agrees with Stenger on the current MetroLink dispute and would have advised Dooley to oppose Slay’s proposal were he still in office.
James Shrewsbury, who heads the regional agency that oversees the domed stadium downtown, said a good mayor-county executive relationship “is not important every day, but it’s important at certain times.” Building that stadium was an example, he said.
He said “open warfare never helps” city-county relations. However, Shrewsbury said, “we’ve had more bitter battles in city government” over prolonged periods of time than between mayors and county executives in recent decades.
Shrewsbury, a former longtime city alderman, cited disputes between Schoemehl and then-Comptroller Virvus Jones in the 1990s and a previous mayor and comptroller in the 1970s.
Schoemehl said the fractured governmental system makes it harder for the city and county to work together.
“This issue highlights the importance of St. Louis city and county actually being one entity,” Schoemehl said of the current MetroLink flap. “Then the north-south issue isn’t as divisive. The way we are approaching this has to do with personalities. You don’t have a formula for long-term success.”
Schoemehl added: “We have a few decades to get it right, or we will be an economic backwater. This is clearly a 19th-century government structure, and this shows it.”
Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.