March 10, 2023 - Editorial: County Council spends lavishly, and suspiciously, for Prop M education campaign

March 10, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) | Author/Byline: the Editorial Board | Page: A14 | Section: Editorial

A funny thing happened during a seemingly routine St. Louis County Council vote Tuesday regarding a proposed $150,000 expenditure to advertise an April 4 marijuana-tax ballot measure. The $150,000 request came from County Executive Sam Page. Without even one word of discussion or questions asked — and without Page formally requesting it — council Chair Shalonda Webb introduced a bill to double the amount to $300,000. The bill quickly passed.

Then they revoted to perfect the bill, then voted to finalize passage — all in the span of three minutes. Only two council members voted against the bill, but even they declined to vocalize any objections. The episode marked the epitome of spendthrift bad governance in a county grappling with a $41 million budget hole.

County taxpayers deserve to be livid, but who besides concerned University City resident Tom Sullivan will speak out about it?

Bueller? … Bueller?

First off, let's see if the Post-Dispatch can save taxpayers a big chunk of that $300,000 by educating the reading public right here. The April 4 ballot contains one referendum item, Proposition M, asking: "Shall St. Louis County impose an additional sales tax of three percent (3%) on all tangible property retail sales of adult use marijuana sold in St. Louis County, Missouri?" Voters may answer yes or no.

Beyond restating the wording above, there's very little more the county can say about this ballot item without running afoul of state law, which explicitly forbids using taxpayer money to sway voters. Clearly, Page and the council want Prop M to pass because the county badly needs the money. But whether they support it or not, they are forbidden by law from using public funds to influence the vote.

An equally troubling aspect of Tuesday's session was the utter lack of discussion about Page's request or Webb's bill to double it, as if the matter had already been discussed and decided. On a council infamous for loud squabbles over the tiniest details, no one had a single question, such as why it's necessary or who would get the money to do the educating. And why wasn't $150,000 sufficient?

No one seemed even the slightest bit inquisitive. Could it be that members had discussed this outside the council chamber and agreed on it ahead of time? No way they'd do that! Because that also would be specifically forbidden by Missouri's Sunshine Law.

Oops, we forgot. The council was supposed to hold an educational session about the open-meetings and open-records law on Feb. 25, but that meeting broke up in disarray when Webb tried to close the meeting to the public.

Strange things are happening in St. Louis County governance, possibly behind closed doors, and until taxpayers start demanding answers, they shouldn't be surprised at secretive spending practices that yield $41 million budget deficits.