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St. Louis County Council members seek to limit executive's power during pandemic

County Executive Sam Page has come under fire for some of his recent decisions and Republicans say they want a check on his power
Credit: UPI
St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page talks about re-opening St. Louis County during his tri-weekly press briefing, in Clayton, Missouri on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Page says he is working with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson on the date of May 18th as the beginning of some businesses to reopen. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

CLAYTON, Mo. — St. Louis County voters may soon have the chance to limit the county executive’s power during a public health crisis should the council approve two charter amendments set to come before them for the first time Tuesday night – a move County Executive Sam Page is dismissing as nothing more than partisan politics.

Republican council members, Tim Fitch and Mark Harder, co-sponsored the proposed charter amendments, saying they would bring the county more in line with the checks and balances other governments have in place, including St. Charles and Jefferson counties as well as the state of Missouri. Page is a Democrat.

“I’d be saying the same thing no matter who the county executive is,” Fitch said. “I understand (the Council) wants to protect Sam Page, but he may be out of office Jan. 31, and, if that’s true, do they still feel the same way about the next county executive?

“Would they give him unbridled power? If Stenger was still in there, would Page want to give him unbridled power? The reason to do this has never come up before because we’ve never had a pandemic and we’ve never seen Page use it like he’s using it.”

The St. Louis County Council appointed Page as the county executive after Steve Stenger was indicted on federal pay-to-play schemes. Page's spokesman, Doug Moore, referred 5 On Your Side to remarks Page made during a press briefing Monday for Page's response to the amendments.

During that briefing Monday before reporters on the latest COVID-19 response, Page said Fitch and Harder’s proposed amendments are being done to “limit public health orders, stay-at-home orders or to limit any sort of health orders that keep our community safe."

Moments later, youth sports leaders threatened during a news conference of their own Monday to file an injunction against Page if he doesn’t show them the evidence he used to scale back youth sports programs. Fitch and Harder both spoke at the news conference. Harder spoke with 5 On Your Side's Hannah Yates following the press conference.

"There are over 300 contact tracers we are paying to get this right and we’re not getting it right," he said, adding that there have been delays in reporting the numbers.

Harder also encouraged county residents to post their comments online to the county's website to be read aloud during tonight's public comment portion of the meeting.

Fitch also said several of Page’s decisions have come under fire lately, including the $2 million he spent to build a temporary morgue that has only housed about 60 bodies for short periods of time and led some minority contractors to protest, saying they were excluded from the process. Fitch said minority contractors are required by ordinance to be included, but the public health order allows Page to circumvent the process. 

5 On Your Side's Hannah Yates contributed to this report.

RELATED: St. Louis Sports COVID-19 Coalition demands data on youth cases

During his news conference, Page said he believes it's best to follow the recommendations of public health officials.

“Part of our path forward is to stop making mask-wearing and public health orders and all of these things a partisan exercise,” Page said. “We’re in a better place than a lot of places in the country because of the decisions we’ve made and we need to stay on that track. We really don’t need to have partisan bickering about social distancing, mask-wearing and public health guidelines.”

Fitch said Page missed the point in his remarks.

“I personally agree with mask-wearing, this isn’t about that, it’s about the council exercising its legislative oversight and responsibility,” he said. “Is that partisan politics? Because the state legislature has the authority to review public health orders. That’s not partisan; that’s a check and balance of powers of government.”

Right now, the county charter allows the county executive and the director of the Department of Public Health to issue emergency and public health orders that can continue indefinitely without oversight from the County Council. Republican council members Tim Fitch and Mark Harder co-sponsored legislation that would allow such power to exist only for 15 days, after which the County Council would have to pass a resolution to extend the order and set an expiration date, according to a news release.

It would then take a two-thirds majority vote for the order to continue, under the proposed legislation.

The Council will take its first vote on the plan Tuesday. Should it pass, it will need a second vote, and 15 days after that to become law and appear as two proposed county charter amendments on the Nov. 3 ballot.

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