August 7 ballot

Two what-the-hell propositions on August 7 ballot—and a third that doesn’t count

If you live in St. Louis County, Missouri, and you’re planning to vote in next week’s primary election, your August 7 ballot will include three proposed amendments to the County Charter that may come as a surprise. I’m known to be somewhat of a political junkie, but when I looked at the sample ballot that arrived in the mail a few days ago, I saw the three proposals for the first time [printed in the tiniest type possible, thus virtually unreadable.] These are the kind of what-the-hell ballot items that even plugged-in voters know little about, and either ignore or, in protest, vote against.

But you’ll only be voting on two of them, because a judge just ruled that the third one [Proposition 4] is invalid, even though it’s already printed on the ballot.

In a nutshell

Here’s what the three propositions are about. According to the Post-Dispatch,

Charter Amendment Proposition 2 asks voters whether to allow the County Council to hire its own lawyers in certain cases when it is at odds with the county’s executive branch.

Charter Amendment Proposition 3 asks voters to change the definition of “employment” in the county charter to the same test established under state law that distinguishes employees from independent contractors.

Charter Amendment Proposition 4 asks voters to set a $2,600 contribution limit to candidates for county office and restrict contributions from entities competing for county contracts. It would also expand the council’s authority to transfer money. [Invalidated]


Arcane, right? It’s really hard to fathom what these propositions are about, and why they’re on the ballot in the first place. From what I can glean from news reports, these proposed amendments are the result of political in-fighting between members of the St. Louis County Council and County Executive Steve Stenger [who faces a Democratic primary challenger on August 7.]  Proposition 2 arises from Council members’ sense that the County’s lawyer is on the “side” of the Stenger administration, and that the Council needs a lawyer to represent its separate interests. Proposition 4 apparently grew out of some Council members’ objections to the way some contracts have been awarded to Stenger donors. It’s designed, they says, to address the issue of “pay to play.” [This proposition was invalidated by a Missouri court on July 25, 2018. So, never mind…]

Proposition 3 is especially hard to understand, so I’ll just quote the Post-Dispatch:

The measure would clear up questions such as the one that threatens to end Councilman Ernie Trakas’ tenure on the council. Last month, a special prosecutor asked a judge to remove Trakas because he performs contract legal work for three outstate school districts.

The crazy back story

Did I mention that these propositions were originally part of a package of five passed by the County Council in May? County Executive Stenger then vetoed them, and then the Council overrode his veto with 6 – 1 votes to get three of them on the ballot.

But wait, there’s more: A St. Louis County resident filed a lawsuit stating the the propositions should not be on the ballot, for a variety of reasons. The propositions are on August 7 ballots, which have already been printed, but a judge appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court invalidated Proposition 4 on July 25. According to the Post-Dispatch, “The wording in the question he struck was unclear because it used the word ‘interdepartmental’ instead of ‘intradepartmental’ when discussing the fund transfers. That was enough to strike it, he ruled.”

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the St. Louis County Circuit Court recused itself from the pending lawsuit and kicked it up to the Supreme Court, because the County Council controls the County court’s budget, and Proposition 2 includes a clause that could affect funding.

Got that? Anyway, you still get to vote on two of the three propositions. That should be fun for election officials to explain.

What’s going on here?

My obviously limited understanding of what’s going on here is that the Aug. 7 ballot is being polluted by obscure measures that drag voters into the political fight between Stenger and his opponents on the Council. The only one of these three politically vindictive proposals that seems to me to have any benefit to the general public was the now-inoperative Proposition 4—but only the part of it that limited campaign contributions to $2,600. But there’s probably a much better way to accomplish campaign finance reform with a more cleanly worded measure on a different ballot. And couldn’t these people have settled these political differences in-house without involving and confusing the rest of us?

Spoiler alert: My first instinct was to protest these obscure proposals by voting no on all of them. I have since learned that they are seen by some as “good-government” propositions. With less than 24 hours to go, I am seriously considering voting YES on all three, er, I mean, two.