February 26, 2023 - So much for collaboration: St. Louis County Council meeting deteriorates into turmoil

February 26, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) |  Author/Byline: Kelsey Landis St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A1

CLAYTON — Just a few months after elected officials promised to work together, a special meeting of the St. Louis County Council on Saturday deteriorated into disarray after a disagreement led to two members leaving and the council chair filibustering before abruptly adjourning.

The county's legislative body was supposed to learn about Missouri's government transparency law, known as the Sunshine Law, and also discuss new rules for public comment at their weekly meetings, a controversial topic councilmembers vowed to consider carefully. But they barely made it through their first agenda item, a discussion of council goals for the year, before the meeting went off the rails.

"I wanted to make sure that my councilmembers came and worked in good faith today," Democratic council Chair Shalonda Webb said, "and unfortunately I don't see that happening."

The trouble started as a simple disagreement.

The council disagreed about starting a private discussion to talk about the Missouri Sunshine Law. The county's attorney, Maggie Brueggemann, recommended the council go into closed session so she could provide her interpretation of the law. Legal advice can be considered privileged information and can be discussed in private.

Republican councilmen wanted the discussion to happen publicly and rejected going into closed session. After a short break, Webb began reading aloud an 80-page book on the law produced by the Missouri Attorney General's office, including the table of contents and page numbers.

About 10 minutes after Webb began reading, Democratic Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said she was going to "step away" and left the chambers. The remaining three councilmembers continued listening to Webb for some time, and then Republican Councilman Ernie Trakas interrupted her.

"All of us are capable of reading the book ourselves," Trakas said. "I see no point in taking up valuable time."

Webb said because the council didn't want to go into closed session to hear their attorney's advice, she wanted to read the book in its entirety to share the "mechanics" of the law.

Webb stopped reading the book but continued talking for nearly 20 minutes though other councilmembers raised their hands to be recognized. She repeated points about the importance of working together and government efficiency, and she talked more about the Sunshine Law: reading off phone numbers and web addresses where the public can get more information.

Republican Councilman Mark Harder tried to get Webb's attention verbally.

"Madame Chair, there are other opinions that would like to be recognized," Harder said as Webb took a drink of water.

Webb ignored him, set her bottle of water down and continued talking. Harder gathered his belongings and left the chambers, leaving only Webb, Trakas and Republican Councilman Dennis Hancock. Two other councilmembers, Democrats Rita Heard Days and Kelli Dunaway, were absent. After another few minutes of Webb talking, Hancock interrupted her.

"The fact that the meeting deteriorated the way that it did had nothing to do with the people that were here," Hancock said. "There was no disrespect that I picked up on. There was no personal animosity, there was no, ‘We're going to do some kind of a stunt here.'"

There was just a difference of opinion on what should be discussed in closed session, Hancock said.

Webb thanked him for his comment, and then gave up trying to keep the meeting going altogether, though the council was scheduled to break for lunch then return to discuss public forum rules. The attorney asked Webb if she expected the meeting to continue later.

"No, ma'am, we will not be returning," Webb said, preparing to leave.

Trakas said Harder was still there, and they could continue the meeting, as Harder returned to his seat. Webb ignored him and left the chambers.

The council's next meeting is Tuesday, and Webb said she plans to continue holding quarterly special meetings on council business.