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Task force hospitals pen letter against bills that would limit pandemic powers of Page, health director

"We believe that the current authority granted to the County Executive and Public Health Director of St. Louis County is required to best serve the community"

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — The four hospitals of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force said they do not support three bills that would limit the powers of the St. Louis County executive and director of public health.

This week, the St. Louis County Council was scheduled to vote on bills 220, 222 and 223. All three bills cover the same issue: oversight. Should the county council have control over how County Executive Sam Page and the director of public health handle the pandemic?

The bills would take power away from Page and the health director and give it to the council, including one that says any mandate of more than 15 days would require the council's approval.

The council is working through the more than 2,000 public comments on the bills before voting, and on Friday, the task force provided its comment on the bills.

In a letter addressed to the council and Page, the four hospital systems that comprise the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force said they do not support the bills.

"We believe that the current authority granted to the County Executive and Public Health Director of St. Louis County is required to best serve the community and minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic," the letter said. "Thus, we do not support, and respectfully ask that you reconsider St. Louis County Council Bills 220, 222, and 223."

The decision by the council to read all the comments came during its Tuesday meeting. Chairwoman Lisa Clancy pushed for the council to read into the record more than 2,000 public comments due to concerns of comment-box stuffing, a concern that councilmembers shared.

"There are some real concerns that it's not the majority of St. Louis County that we're hearing from," agreed Councilwoman Keli Dunaway (D) District 2. "It's a very small, vocal minority who happens to know that if they get their comments in at 12:01 [a.m.]  that they'll knock out everyone else's comments. And I think there are some really important issues on our agenda and we need to hear from everyone before we take a vote on those," she said in support of continuing to read the comments into the official record.

"I've got some questions and reservations regarding First Amendment implications of limiting public comments in the public square, because for all intents and purposes, that's what this is," Councilman Ernie Trakas (R) District 6 said of the virtual council meeting before obtaining from a vote to recess at 10:30 p.m. and resume reading the comments at noon Wednesday.

RELATED: Free speech or delay tactic? St. Louis County mandate debate could last days

The following day, Page accused a councilmember of “stuffing the comment box” to make it look like there were far more people against the mask mandate than there actually were. He said when the council only selected some of the comments, it artificially inflated the appearance that the majority of public comments were anti-mask.

“Last night some of the council members discovered that another council member had been stuffing the comment box and then working to limit comments at the council meetings so that only the minority of people in St. Louis County who are opposed to mask mandates would be heard,” Page said during his regularly scheduled briefing Wednesday morning.

Page said Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy was upset to learn about the tactics used by a fellow councilmember and that she was a driving force behind making sure everyone’s voice is heard.

“She was upset, and she should be,” Page said.

RELATED: Councilmember accused of 'stuffing the comment box' in St. Louis County mask mandate debate

After emailing Clancy’s office Wednesday morning for comment, the councilwoman shared a screenshot of a post that appeared to be made by District 7 Councilman Mark Harder in the "STL County Sports Families Against Youth Sports Mandate" Facebook group. 

"Pages & Clancy supporters are mounting a comment surge for Tues night meeting to support the Doctor and all that he has done for us. You need to get your comments sent in starting at 12:01 a.m. tonight so they are the first 60-80 comments read. That is all we will have time to hear. The rest will not be read so we hope the opposing comments will not get read," the screenshot showed.

"He appears to not only be attempting to stuff the comment box, but also making it clear that he does not want any opposition on his bills to be heard," Clancy emailed 5 On Your Side Wednesday. "It is also telling to me the topic of the group in which he is posting, especially because he claims that his bills are just about checks and balances."

During recent St. Louis County Council meetings citizens have weighed in with hundreds of comments, many of which were never read. Instead, reading of the comments was cut-off at about two hours with the remaining comments supposed to be entered into the official records of the meetings. 

Clancy said because so many comments have been coming in, the council staff is three weeks behind in preparing journals for councilmembers, which means they're not getting the opportunity to see what wasn't shared out loud during the meetings.

Page said awareness that the council was considering removing the mask mandate prompted even more residents to send in their comments. Clancy said she has seen support for the mask mandate in the emails that, so far, haven't been shared.

"I am committed to ensuring that all voices who want to be heard on this important policy issue are heard. The council is considering changing the basis of people's health and safety from 'based on science' to 'approved by a supermajority of politicians', so we ought to at least be willing to hear what everyone thinks of that," Clancy said Tuesday night.

"From the comments I heard from people who have so far been silent, they are worried and appalled and unwilling to trust the council to stand up to the people who believe in herd immunity and no masks."