Editorial: County Council suffers buyer’s remorse after relinquishing oversight

Members of the St. Louis County Council conduct an online meeting Tuesday afternoon. In addition to members of the council, county employees Chris Grahn-Howard, Diann Valenti and Beth Orwick are seen in this screenshot. Councilman Mark Harder also participated in the meeting. 

Posted in St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 20, 2020
by the Editorial Board

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page got what he wanted: complete control over the $173.5 million in federal coronavirus-response aid. The County Council divided exactly along party lines last month as Democrats stood with Page and insisted the county executive could be trusted to come up with an action plan for disbursing the federal funds, and that he would execute that plan efficiently and transparently. Republicans were just as insistent that no one, regardless of party, should be entrusted with that amount of money without direct council oversight.

Editorially, we stood with the Republicans. The county’s recent history is simply too fraught with examples of mismanagement, backroom dealing and outright fraud to justify ceding such awesome control to one person. For all his good intentions, Page and his advisers needed the kind of official scrutiny that only the council could provide.

The Democrats won the argument by sheer force of their council majority, letting Page dispense that big bundle of money as he pleased. But on Tuesday, their buyer’s remorse was painfully evident. Several of Page’s closest allies are now questioning whether he knows what he’s doing — and whether he’s being fully transparent.

We hate to say we told you so, but …

As the Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler reports, members of a special committee that council Democrats created to review Page’s disbursement of the federal funds are expressing serious doubts about whether Page actually has developed a plan of action. They can’t figure out how his spending decisions are being made, and his lack of communication is increasingly troublesome.

Even his “Dr. Sam” campaign emails, which previously extolled his pandemic-management prowess as a physician, have stopped providing detailed updates (which is probably a good thing, since it was never appropriate for him to mix his official business with his election campaign).

The point is, he’s not explaining his disbursement decisions or the rationale behind them. But then, the council gave him permission to do exactly what he’s doing.

Page didn’t attend Tuesday’s virtual meeting, nor did Cindy Brinkley, the former Centene executive whom he named to oversee the response effort. Deborah Patterson, who reports to Brinkley, outlined future guidelines for grants from the federal funds. Yet she acknowledged that $2.6 million in grants already awarded to five nonprofit groups did not follow those guidelines. She couldn’t even outline her humanitarian response budget.

Even County Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, Page’s top cheerleader on the council, whose brother is co-managing Page’s election campaign, expressed concerns about funds possibly being diverted and the lack of a clear plan as a spending deadline approaches.
Council Republicans, along with Page’s challengers in the August Democratic primary, have every right to gloat and to parade these dubious management practices before voters. And they can use council Democrats’ own words to make their case.



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