April 27, 2020 – Zimmerman demands transparency and accountability for Coronavirus relief funds.
St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman today called on County Executive Sam Page and County Council Chair Lisa Clancy to stop the backroom deals for the County’s $175 million in federal Coronavirus relief funds. In a letter to Page and Clancy, Zimmerman condemned the Council’s decision to let County Executive Page allocate the federal money without Council oversight, public input, or prior public disclosure.
Zimmerman noted that just two years ago, Page and the Council pushed for County Charter amendments to rein in this kind of unregulated spending by former County Executive Steve Stenger. The amendments were approved by voters by landslide margins. Now, Stenger is in prison, and Page and the Council want to revive the “Stenger Way” of managing county spending.
“The public must know where this money is going before it goes there, not after,” Zimmerman wrote. “More importantly, the peoples’ voices must be heard through and during the appropriation process, not afterwards. In this post-Stenger era, it is especially important that the taxpayers be assured these funds are going to help those most in need, not those who are most connected.”
The text of Zimmerman’s letter to Page and Clancy follows.
April 27, 2020
County Executive Sam Page
County Council Chair Lisa Clancy
St. Louis County Government Center
Clayton, MO 63105
Dear Sam and Lisa:
When Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus relief bill and announced that he would ignore the inspector general appointed to review this spending and basically refuse all attempts at Congressional oversight, thoughtful public leaders recoiled in horror. We were right to do so.
Today, sadly, St. Louis County citizens are witnessing a political battle in Clayton over legislative oversight of the spending of $175 million in emergency relief funds from Washington. The County Executive and a Council majority want County Executive Page to be able to allocate this money as he thinks best, without specific Council approval; public disclosure of who got what would come later.
As recently as 2018, we all agreed that this kind of process was not a good idea. In November of that year, during the Stenger administration, the County Council under the leadership of Chairman Sam Page put charter amendments on the ballot to assure more vigorous legislative oversight of County budgetary matters. The voters overwhelmingly approved — not because Steve Stenger was a crook (which he in fact turned out to be), but because in the American system of government legislative oversight of the executive is the ultimate insurance against corruption should another Steve Stenger come along.
It was a good idea then, and it is a good idea now.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that Council or the County Executive have anything but honorable intentions for the distribution of every dime of that $175 million. But, $175 million is a lot of dimes, and there are a lot of cracks through which some of those dimes can fall. It just makes sense to maximize the legislative review of this spending, not to minimize it. The public must know where this money is going before it goes there, not after. More importantly, the peoples’ voices must be heard through and during the appropriation process, not afterwards. In this post-Stenger era, it is especially important that the taxpayers be assured these funds are going to help those most in need, not those who are most connected.
That’s called transparency, and it is something every one of us at every level of government owes every citizen.
The money is on the way, and the need to get it out to where it will help is urgent. But, that’s no excuse for cutting corners. Rather than wasting time fighting over whether the County Executive should be able to apportion the spending behind closed doors (a topic that shouldn’t even be up for discussion), the Council and the County Executive should work together to develop a spending plan, present it for public inspection and vote to move ahead. That’s the path most likely to save money and lives down the road.
I sincerely urge you to find a path of compromise that best balances the need for speed with the need for transparency and accountability. It can be done if there is the will to do it. Of course, if my office or I can assist in this process in any way, I stand ready.