By Jeremy Kohler St. Louis Post-Dispatch May 1, 2019
CLAYTON • As Sam Page addressed reporters for the first time as St. Louis County executive, he acknowledged that he was not the first to promise to clean up county government.
His predecessor, Steve Stenger, who resigned Monday, had once said much the same. Now Stenger faces the possibility of prison and a three-count indictment handed up by a federal grand jury alleging multiple pay-to-play schemes.
Page said he would bring a much more respectful and collaborative tone to the job and act immediately to “try to prevent the opportunity to allow someone to initiate a government decision in exchange for a campaign contribution.”
“We will set up as many barriers to that as possible, and I hope to have some policy initiatives in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
Page became the county executive Monday night by a 5-1 County Council vote. Under the county charter, Page, a Democrat who had represented the 2nd District, will serve as county executive until after the next general election in November 2020. The winner of that election will serve the balance of Stenger’s term, which expires on Jan. 1, 2023. Page said he had not decided whether to run.
Page summoned reporters Tuesday to the conference room of his newly occupied ninth-floor office in the county government building. He said he would work much more collaboratively with council members than Stenger, who degraded them as a “circus” when they opposed him. Stenger had skipped nine of their meetings in a row from November to February, flouting a requirement in the county charter that he attend.
Page said the indictment validated the council’s wary stance toward Stenger, and their probes into contracts they believe he steered toward campaign donors.
“It was obvious to us that something was wrong,” he said. “When we asked questions, we were met with an enormous amount of hostility, anger and aggression. That also raised flags, but that also gave the county executive some political cover to argue that these were politicians fighting and that the council did not have merit in their position.
“A lot of people accepted that position because it was believable in our current, very polarized state of government that we have. … It was an explanation that sold.”
He said he gave “credit to the reporters at the Post-Dispatch that they deserve. They requested information, they compared the documents that were being discovered to the statements that were being made and said, ‘This does not make sense,’ and started writing about it. And it’s apparent to us now that the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office read the papers.”
Stenger did not respond to a request for comment.
Page said his own leadership style was “to make everyone around me successful and I intend to work with everyone on the County Council and use their expertise and their experience to make decisions.”
Page gave several members of Stenger’s staff notice they had until the end of the day to resign, and making appointments of his own. A source familiar with the transition said Stenger administration officials who are leaving are County Counselor Peter Krane, spokesman Cordell Whitlock, chief of policy Jeff Wagener, operations chief Glenn Powers, and advisers Tom Malecek and Michael Benoist.
Krane said he had no comment; the others could not be reached.
Patti Hageman, the former St. Louis city counselor who joined Stenger’s team three months ago as a senior policy adviser, turned in her resignation on Monday about 20 minutes before Stenger did the same. She said she had a new job but declined to discuss it.
Photo by Robert Cohen of the Post-Dispatch