February 26, 2021 - St. Louis County executive to veto budget cuts targeting former councilwoman’s new job, lobbying expenses

February 26, 2021 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author/Byline: NASSIM BENCHAABANE St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A7 | Section: News

CLAYTON — St. Louis County Executive Sam Page will veto budget cuts targeting former Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray’s new county job and lobbyists hired to fight state legislation to restrict local health powers.

Page spokesman Doug Moore said Thursday the county executive will veto both bills within the required 15-day window from receiving them.

In what has become a familiar pattern, the St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 to approve both cuts, with Rita Heard Days, Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Shalonda Webb supporting the measures, and Lisa Clancy, Kelli Dunaway and Ernie Trakas voting against.

But while the anti-Page faction has a majority on the seven-member body, it lacks the necessary fifth vote to override his vetoes.

The council on Feb. 16 approved the first budget cut, which would strip $122,000 from the public health department’s budget for 2021 — an amount equal to Gray’s salary and benefits. The former District 4 Democrat was appointed by Page last month to oversee COVID-19 vaccine community outreach in north St. Louis County.

Days, Fitch and Harder blasted the appointment as payback for Gray, who as a lame duck councilwoman, provided a winning fourth vote Jan. 5 to retain Clancy as chair and elect Trakas as vice chair. Those votes were later rescinded when Webb joined the council as Gray’s successor, and joined the anti-Page faction. The new majority elected Days and Harder as the new chair and vice chair, but the Page administration sued to block that action, and the dispute is now in court.

Gray’s hiring also prompted both factions of the council to push legislation to bar council members from getting county jobs within two years of leaving office.

On Tuesday, the council voted 4-3 to strip $150,000 from the county’s general fund for 2021 to cover the amount paid to six lobbyists fighting efforts in the Legislature to limit the power of local government to issue and enforce public health orders.

Fitch — who along with Harder and Trakas have also sought to curb Page’s power to issue emergency health orders — introduced the bill after a Feb. 5 Post-Dispatch report that the county was hiring lobbyists to protect the local health authority.

The Republican push in the statehouse to restrict local health orders, “is misguided and would be really damaging to all of the hard work we’ve done on the pandemic, and could endanger the health and safety of St. Louis County residents,” Moore said.

But the lobbyists will also represent the county in seeking state funding for redevelopment projects, including the Jamestown Mall, and passing legislation that could boost local tax revenue, including a push to tax internet sales, Moore said.

Fitch said Page’s vetoes were expected and that the council “took the right action” on the bills, which weren’t aimed at undermining county health orders, but at limiting Page’s authority, Fitch said.

“It just brings the County Council into the decision-making process and that’s not what he wants,” Fitch said. “He’s made it very clear he wants no input from the council.”