Dooley's controversial proposal, filled with cuts, fuels ongoing interparty feud.
BY PAUL HAMPEL • email@example.com > 314-727-6234 | Posted: Sunday, November 6, 2011 12:25 am
CLAYTON • Party politics, with its foundation of lockstep voting, private disagreements and routine political hires, is cracking in St. Louis County.
The latest fracture followed County Executive Charlie A. Dooley's presentation Monday to the County Council of his proposed 2012 budget.
For many years, Democratic County Councils have routinely approved budgets presented by Democratic county executives. Before that, it was the Republicans who were in sync.
But with a call for closing almost half of the county's 50 active parks, 175 job cuts and reduced snow plowing, this was no typical budget proposal.
And since Steve Stenger was sworn in as the Democratic councilman from Affton in 2009, this has been no typical County Council.
Stenger — now the council chairman — has publicly opposed Dooley on key issues. Five of the seven council members are Democrats, and most have consistently backed Stenger.
He has raised objections to:
• The departure of former Police Chief Jerry Lee, who was replaced after he publicly questioned Dooley's expenditures.
• A proposed contract for a family member of a longtime Dooley aide.
• Political hires in administrative positions.
• A tax increase that Dooley proposed in August.
Now, Stenger, backed by the council majority, is digging in against Dooley's budget proposal.
"Dooley's plan is to try and force the County Council to take the blame for a tax increase that county government doesn't need,"
Stenger said. "The fact that there is dissension between this council and the county executive is to be expected when the county executive holds parks and jobs hostage against us."
Dooley has held the county's top office since 2003, when he succeeded George R. "Buzz" Westfall after Westfall died. He acknowledged the current strained relationship but attributed it to extreme circumstances.
"I'll be 64 on Dec. 1, and we have never in my lifetime been involved in the economic circumstances we have today," Dooley said. "I think that changes the way people do things."
One longtime observer — and former participant — of county politics said he could not recall a relationship that was this combative between prominent members of the same political party in county government.
"The answer is no; I can tell you that without even thinking about it," said Gene McNary, whose tenure as county executive from 1975 to 1989 marked the last time a Republican held the seat. "When the council was Republican and I was county executive, we knew we were a team on 90 percent of the issues. On the other 10, we settled things privately."
Dooley's senior policy adviser, Mike Jones, said last week that partisan politics as they have existed in the county may be extinct.
County government, he predicted, will include more of the visceral, interparty feuds that have long been a hallmark of politics in the city of St. Louis.
"My observation, based on my 30 years in politics, is that party identification and party loyalty is not what it used to be in the county," said Jones, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon in the 1990s. "And dissension, depending on how it plays out and what its motivation is, may not necessarily be a bad thing."
PARKS AS TARGETS
Last week, the rift in county government widened after Dooley told the council that balancing the budget would require the closure of such popular parks as Lone Elk, George Winter, Greensfelder and Fort Bellefontaine, plus elimination of 135 jobs in the parks department, 40 of them full time.
Dooley said the cuts would save the county about $10 million, enough to balance the budget.
On Tuesday, Dooley's appointed parks director, Lindsey Swanick, delivered a letter to her employees telling them the money problems would go away if the County Council would approve a 2.3-cent property tax increase. Swanick advised her workers how to sign up to speak at a special public budget hearing before the County Council on Nov. 15.
That 2.3-cent figure had a familiar ring, one that did not go unheeded by Stenger.
It was the same tax-rate increase that Dooley and Stenger had sparred over in August, after the county executive told the council he needed a tax hike to give raises to county employees and prevent layoffs.
Stenger, backed by most members of the council, won that battle after he cited statistics that called into question the administration's claims of a budget crisis.
Dooley withdrew the proposal, acknowledging that he had supplied inaccurate financial data to support the plan. He also publicly apologized and promised in the future to keep the council involved on major issues.
"We had a truce, and Charlie broke it," Stenger said last week. "Charlie and his staff went back to the drawing board and developed this ill-conceived plan to hold the parks as hostage against the council unless we supported that 2.3-cent tax increase. And Swanick has been complicit in their plans to get county employees to pressure the council."
Dooley on Friday said the budget was based on grim economic forecasts because of declining property and sales tax revenue, not political maneuvering.
"I made a budget recommendation based on what I felt was the best way for St. Louis County to continue to move forward as a great place to live, work and play," Dooley said.
Swanick said she wrote her letter on her own, without any input from the county executive.
"It was simply a response to requests from parks employees on what they could do about this situation," she said.
Stenger responded to Dooley's proposal by announcing the formation of a special budget committee, the first in memory in county government.
He said the committee will revisit one of his previous public beefs with the county administration — the hiring this year, in spite of a countywide hiring freeze, of at least eight Democratic campaign workers to county jobs.
They include Dooley's former campaign spokeswoman, Katy Jamboretz ($88,000 salary as spokeswoman for the county Economic Council); Mike Temporiti, son of Dooley's campaign treasurer, Democratic powerbroker John Temporiti ($70,000 salary in a job created for him in the Revenue Department); and Sara Howard, former spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis ($88,999 salary as county Assessor Jake Zimmerman's spokeswoman).
"Before we lay off career maintenance men or career park rangers, I will demand that these political hires go first," said Stenger, who is an accountant as well as a lawyer.
He vowed to hold up approval of the budget, even if it meant missing the Dec. 31 deadline. That would cause the council to approve spending on a week-to-week basis while operating under the current budget.
Dooley dismissed Stenger's threat, saying if he thought it was necessary to lay off the recent hires, "I would have done it already."
He added, "Mr. Stenger is just one of seven council members. And they all have their own opinions."
But those opinions may be changing.
The chairman of the new budget committee is Mike O'Mara, a Democrat from Florissant in his 11th year on the council. For years, he had been a stalwart Dooley supporter.
In the wake of last year's defeat of a casino plan in North County, which O'Mara championed and which Dooley killed by withdrawing his support, O'Mara has become a solid Stenger ally.
"This committee is going to dig down on this budget and do everything it can to save these jobs," O'Mara said on Thursday. "And we are not going to quit removing snow. This council is not going to put up with threats like that."
For months, Stenger has been mentioned around county government headquarters in Clayton as a possible candidate for Dooley's job in 2014.
He said last week that he has not made a decision on whether to run and that the prospect of doing so had no bearing on his recent stands.
As for the county executive's future plans, Dooley said last week, "I'm always running, until the day I say different."