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

The St. Louis County Council's vote to take power away from County Executive Sam Page was delayed by the reading of public comments.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Tuesday night anyone who joined the livestreamed virtual St. Louis County Council meeting saw democracy in action - with very little actual action.

The meeting started at 6:30 p.m. and, with recesses and reconvening, could last for several days as Chairwoman Lisa Clancy pushed for the council to read into the record more than 2,000 public comments both for and against legislation that could shift the balance of power when it comes to responding to the pandemic.

This issue is oversight. Should the county council have control over how County Executive Sam Page handles the pandemic? 

Whether it's the mask mandate, youth sports, or business restrictions, there are multiple bills that 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.

What's taking so long are the public comments - both for and against these bills.

At 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. 

Tuesday, more than 2,200 people emailed their comments to the council and in a reversal from previous meetings Chairwoman Lisa Clancy and fellow Democrats said all of the comments should be read aloud. 

"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. 

In what has become less frequent bi-partisanship, Councilman Ernie Trakas (R) District 6 agreed. "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," he said of the virtual council meeting before obtaining from a vote to recess at 10:30pm and resume reading the comments at noon Wednesday. 

Getting through all of the comments could take days. As of about 9 p.m. the council had heard fewer than 75 of the more than 2,000 emails. 

Multiple sources close to the council tell 5 On Your Side they have the votes to pass some form of restriction of Sam Page's power. But, in a way, the public comments could serve as a filibuster of sorts - delaying legislation Page would likely veto. 

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