ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch says he is tired of not getting a straight answer from County Executive Sam Page’s administration on whether Prop P funds will be used to pay off a looming $20 million verdict from a discrimination lawsuit.
So, he’s asked county counselors to draft legislation forbidding it from happening.
A jury awarded the settlement to then Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, who is gay, following a five-day trial in October in which he said the homophobic culture of Chief Jon Belmar’s administration was preventing him from getting promoted. He also accused the chief of retaliating against him for his decision to file the lawsuit.
But the amount Wildhaber, now a lieutenant, will ultimately get remains unclear. Both sides are now trying to settle the issue through mediation. They only have about 30 days left before the county's appeal must be heard in court.
Fitch said he’s asked the county’s administration “on several occasions” if there are plans to use the sales tax revenues voters approved about three years ago to pay for the settlement or any other lawsuits pending against the county.
“The response I continue to receive is, ‘We will not discuss legal strategy,’” he said. “What I’m looking for is a hard, ‘No, we will not use Prop P money for this purpose,’ but I’m not getting that.
“I believe the current ordinance doesn’t allow for that, but my legislation will ensure they cannot use it for that purpose. When people voted in Prop P, they were never told that their tax dollars could be used to settle lawsuits.”
5 On Your Side asked Page’s office if Prop P money would be used for the Wildhaber case, and spokesman Doug Moore referred a reporter to county counselor Beth Orwick. She said, “I am not able to comment on pending litigation at this time.”
In his letter Wednesday morning to the county counselor’s office, Fitch also asked that the legislation prevent the county from allocating Prop P funds to any self-insurance funds for any county departments.
It’s unclear whether Fitch’s proposed legislation could take effect in time to have any impact on where the money comes from for the Wildhaber settlement or any others.
First, the county counselor’s office must agree to draft Fitch’s legislation. Then, it must make its way through the county council process before it could take effect.
But Fitch said he felt compelled to act on the matter following Tuesday’s council meeting, during which County Council chairwoman Lisa Clancy tried to strike down his request to have a public meeting about the status of the Prop P fund.
Fitch asked for the meeting after the county’s budget director told him in an email that the Prop P fund had been “overbudgeted,” after the passage of the contract for police officers and their pay increases.
Page appears to support Clancy's preference that council members meet privately with the budget director on the matter.
In a statement, Moore wrote: "County Executive Page supports whatever the chairwoman decides. I know she met with the budget director to get her questions answered and is encouraging other council members to do the same."
But the council overruled Clancy and voted in favor of hearing an update on the fund in a public meeting.
During Fitch's remarks at Tuesday's county council meeting, those in attendance applauded.
Page told KMOX that the council’s passage of a $1.5 million pay raise for the family courts is to blame – an expense Page said was not included in his proposed budget. Page’s spokesman Moore has also said the county counselors advise the council; they do not tell them what to do.
Fitch said the council approved the expense at the request of the county counselor’s office, which reports to Page.
“For him to say the council is responsible for all of this is disingenuous," he said. "I will tell you, in the future, anything they send to me – especially if it has anything to do with Prop P – will be especially scrutinized by me."
RELATED: After winning $19M discrimination lawsuit, St. Louis County officer promoted to head of new diversity unit