St. Louis County Council surrender of relief oversight ‘not normal,’ expert says

The St. Louis County Council met on April 21, 2020 via Cisco Webex.
Pictured with the council’s seven members are Diann Valenti, chief deputy county clerk, and County Executive Sam Page.

by Jeremy Kohler
published in St. Louis Post Dispatch
April 23, 2020

CLAYTON — As St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s administration prepared to accept $173.5 million in federal coronavirus relief this week, his staff offered little more than a rough framework for how they would spend the funds — except that they are likely to do so without legislative oversight from the County Council.
On Tuesday, the four Democrats who make up a council majority advanced a plan that would allow the Page administration to spend the federal aid without coming back to the council for approval of specific programs. The measure is likely to pass 4-3 next week.

The three council Republicans — Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas — are furious, accusing Page of trying to control the windfall to help his chances in the Democratic primary on Aug. 4. Fitch also said on Wednesday that Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy had a conflict of interest because her brother, Jon Clancy, runs Page’s campaign. Clancy accused the Republicans of trying to “sabotage” the county’s response to an emergency.

A political scientist who tracks St. Louis-area governments said on Wednesday he understands why some people may be alarmed by a legislative body’s willingness to cede its oversight power to the executive, noting that the legislative body in Jackson County, Missouri, has refused to do so.

“It’s not normal in government to do that,” said Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. “Even the U.S. Congress and President Trump are working together, to an extent. I believe in a check-and-balance system and I don’t believe giving all that money to the county executive to spend at will is a good idea.”
He added, “Where that money goes is highly political, and I don’t think Page should have the exclusive authority to decide.”

Clancy said it’s the environment — a public health emergency — that’s not normal, and that she didn’t need to know more than the framework for how the aid would be spent.

She said she did not have a conflict of interest. She said when Page hired her brother, he did so without her consultation. She said she wasn’t thrilled about how it would look, but that it had no impact on her role as council chair.

“My life would be a hell of a lot easier if my brother was doing something that didn’t have to do with politics,” she said. But, “I don’t blame Sam Page or anyone else for wanting to hire him to work on their campaigns. … Jon is well qualified.”

Clancy said things may be different if Page’s predecessor, Steve Stenger, who is serving a federal prison sentence after admitting to directing county contracts to political donors, were still in office.

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