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Lawsuit filed over control of St. Louis County Council

The lawsuit alleges that the vote during the special session was unlawful and in violation of the St. Louis County charter

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — St. Louis County filed a lawsuit on Saturday against four other councilmembers to prevent them from taking control of the council following a controversial vote a day earlier during a special session.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, a Democrat representing District 5 and Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican representing District 6, alleges that the vote during the special session was unlawful and in violation of the St. Louis County charter.

At the center of the lawsuit is control over the seven-member council. The councilmembers who filed it, along with Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, a Democrat representing District 2, generally support County Executive Dr. Sam Page. Republicans Tim Fitch and Mark Harder, and Democrat Rita Heard Days generally do not.

But the origin of the lawsuit goes back to the August 2020 primary election in which voters in St. Louis County approved a change to the county charter that moved the swearing in of councilmembers from Jan. 1 to the second Tuesday in January.

That change let Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District, who was defeated in the same election by Shalonda Gray, to vote during the council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 5, the same meeting during which council members elect a chair and vice-chair for the next 12 months.

At the council’s Jan. 5 meeting, Clancy and Trakas were elected chair and vice chair, respectively, by a vote of 4-3. One of the “yea” votes belonged to Gray. Webb, a Democrat, earlier had said allowing Gray to vote would be unfair to her constituents.

At the council meeting last Tuesday – Gray’s last and Webb’s first – Fitch moved to suspend council rules so members could vote on a resolution that would vacate the Jan. 5 election of Clancy and Trakas.

Fitch, Harder, Days and Webb, voted to approve the resolution, which led to Fitch, who represents District 3, assuming the role of “presiding officer” and taking the position that Clancy was no longer council chair. The resolution also called Clancy’s election illegal because of Gray’s vote.

Clancy, Gray and Beth Orwick, the county counselor who filed the lawsuit, said Gray was able to vote on Jan. 5 because her term expired on Jan. 12, not Dec. 31, 2020. Fitch pointed out that the charter and state constitution limited a term to four years – Gray’s term would have exceeded it by 12 days.

Clancy refused to recognize the vote, and the meeting was adjourned about 30 minutes later.

During Friday’s special session, Fitch and Harder nominated Days as council chair, and Days and Fitch nominated Harder, who represents District 7, as vice chair. The votes for both were objected to by Clancy, Trakas and Dunaway.

In the lawsuit, the county argues that the vote on Jan. 5 was “legal and proper” in accordance with the charter and the State of Missouri and calls the resolution vote and the vote to elect Days and Harder “null and void” and further goes on to say it has “no legal effect.”

The lawsuit references a portion of the charter and state constitution that states councilmembers elected as chair and vice chair “… hold office unless lawfully removed (and) until their successors are duly elected or appointed and qualified ….” It also makes mention of a Missouri Supreme Court decision that clarified the portion is meant to “… make sure the public … will at all times have an incumbent to perform the duties thereof….”

For his part, Page said he supports letting the courts decide and said he looks forward to a resolution.

Councilmembers Fitch, Harder, Days and Webb have until Jan. 21 to respond to the lawsuit.

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