For those who had believed, or even hoped, that a compromise between a majority of St. Louis County Council members on a local mask mandate would calm recent fervor on the issue must have been disappointed by the council meeting on August 31.
Forty-seven members of the public registered to speak at the meeting. Their messages were both consistent and predictable.
The continuing wave of disinformation, conspiracy theories and questionable “science” dominated the public forum portion of the meeting. However, this time, council chairperson Rita Heard Days (D-District 1) refused to extend the time allotted for public comments beyond the time prescribed in council rules. His decision to abide by regular council rules was greeted with yelling and profanity when some members of the public stepped out.
Regardless, public comment has done little to advance public policy. In fact, the most important recent political decision was taken a few days earlier outside of the regular council meeting.
On August 27, Democratic council members reached a compromise and agreed to pass a resolution on mandatory masks for people over 5 in St. Louis County. All three Republican council members abstained in the vote.
“Now that we have reached an agreement that overcomes all legal challenges… we can now move forward and focus our collective energies on tackling COVID through a global issue,” Days said in a statement.
The vote came a day after council heard nearly four hours of testimony from local health experts and guests. The testimony did not provide any revelation and only reiterated the previously stated positions of the county public health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding masks and COVID-19. Given their comments, questions and ultimately their votes, there is no indication that the meeting changed the opinion of the members of the council.
The decision of Days and council member Shalonda Webb (D-District 4) to reverse their stance on a mask mandate was likely motivated more by a desire to see an appropriate legislative process than a change in their thinking about science. behind the masks. Days and Webb had previously shared their disappointment over County Director Dr Sam Page’s decision to issue a mask warrant without consulting council first.
“I want to tell everyone, we have heard you, we share your concerns and values and we all want what will help us stay safe and protect us from this scourge,” Days said.
The warrant was issued on July 26, but a subsequent trial by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and a ruling by Circuit Court Judge Ellen Ribaudo prevented the county from enforcing it. The agreement passed by the majority of council requires that face masks be worn by most residents aged 5 and over when indoors in public places. However, there are no penalties for non-compliance.
A moratorium on evictions
Tenants unable to meet their housing obligations have become both a local and a national problem. A bill was introduced by Days to temporarily stop evictions of tenants in arrears on their rent in the county. The bill was supported by all four Democrats on the council, but Republicans have raised some concerns.
“There is a legal question… many legal questions that I have about this bill,” council member Tim Fitch (R-District 3) said after reading the bill. Fitch took note of the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court against the CDC’s power to impose a nationwide moratorium on rental evictions.
Fitch also had questions about whether money provided to the county by the federal government was still available to local tenants who needed help paying their rent.
“There’s tens of millions of dollars (in rent assistance) out there, but we’re going to force landlords to take it on the chin again,” Fitch said. “Who’s going to pay their bills is my problem?” ”
Fitch sought legal advice from County Councilor Beth Orwick on whether the federal government would provide further assistance to the County of St. Louis if prosecuted over a local moratorium. Orwick declined to answer his questions in public but offered to speak to him in private.
Council member Lisa Clancy (D-District 5) pointed out that the money set aside for rent relief was also available to landlords. However, Fitch countered that in order for a landlord to receive the benefits of the fund, the tenant must be part of the process. This has been a major obstacle for some local owners, according to Fitch.
Fitch and council member Mark Harder (R-District 7) have asked Days to suspend the vote until a committee hearing can take place. Days agreed and asked Orwick to work quickly to answer the legal questions that had been raised. Days also made it clear that the process cannot drag on for weeks or months.
“I am very concerned that there are people on court waiting lists who could be deported (soon),” Days said.
Public relations firm refuses to appear before the board
Questions about the county’s $ 2 million deal with a New York-based public relations firm might not be answered any time soon. During a special meeting in August, board members asked numerous questions about how the more than $ 170 million in federal CARES Act money was spent by the administration of Page. A particularly thorny subject was that of a contract awarded to Fenton Communications.
Billed as a “social change agency,” Fenton has managed major public information campaigns for local governments across the country. But several council members wondered why such a large contract was needed with a foreign company when the county already employs its own public information officers. Several board members had hoped to get clarification directly from Fenton’s management.
“While I respectfully decline your invitation to appear in person before County Council, I hope to deepen your understanding of our work and its impact on the community,” wrote Jennifer Hahn, Managing Director of Fenton Communications, in an e -mail of August 30 to the Council.
Hahn said the Department of Public Health had recently received “detailed reports” on the company’s work and progress so far.
That didn’t satisfy Harder or Fitch, two of the biggest critics of the company’s multi-million dollar deal with the county. They asked Days what action could be taken next and, if so, the county had a legal recourse to compel Fenton’s management to show up to a future meeting. Days said they would discuss the matter and possible next steps with Orwick.