Party politics, with its foundation of lockstep voting, private disagreements and routine political hires, is cracking in St. Louis County.
The latest fracture followed County Executive Charlie A. Dooley's presentation Monday to the County Council of his proposed 2012 budget.
For many years, Democratic County Councils have routinely approved budgets presented by Democratic county executives. Before that, it was the Republicans who were in sync.
But with a call for closing almost half of the county's 50 active parks, 175 job cuts and reduced snow plowing, this was no typical budget proposal.
And since Steve Stenger was sworn in as the Democratic councilman from Affton in 2009, this has been no typical County Council.
Stenger — now the council chairman — has publicly opposed Dooley on key issues. Five of the seven council members are Democrats, and most have consistently backed Stenger.
He has raised objections to:
• The departure of former Police Chief Jerry Lee, who was replaced after he publicly questioned Dooley's expenditures.
• A proposed contract for a family member of a longtime Dooley aide.
• Political hires in administrative positions.
• A tax increase that Dooley proposed in August.
Now, Stenger, backed by the council majority, is digging in against Dooley's budget proposal.
"Dooley's plan is to try and force the County Council to take the blame for a tax increase that county government doesn't need," Stenger said. "The fact that there is dissension between this council and the county executive is to be expected when the county executive holds parks and jobs hostage against us."
Dooley has held the county's top office since 2003, when he succeeded George R. "Buzz" Westfall after Westfall died. He acknowledged the current strained relationship but attributed it to extreme circumstances.
"I'll be 64 on Dec. 1, and we have never in my lifetime been involved in the economic circumstances we have today," Dooley said. "I think that changes the way people do things."
One longtime observer — and former participant — of county politics said he could not recall a relationship that was this combative between prominent members of the same political party in county government.
"The answer is no; I can tell you that without even thinking about it," said Gene McNary, whose tenure as county executive from 1975 to 1989 marked the last time a Republican held the seat. "When the council was Republican and I was county executive, we knew we were a team on 90 percent of the issues. On the other 10, we settled things privately."
Dooley's senior policy adviser, Mike Jones, said last week that partisan politics as they have existed in the county may be extinct. County government, he predicted, will include more of the visceral, interparty feuds that have long been a hallmark of politics in the city of St. Louis.
"My observation, based on my 30 years in politics, is that party identification and party loyalty is not what it used to be in the county," said Jones, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon in the 1990s. "And dissension, depending on how it plays out and what its motivation is, may not necessarily be a bad thing."
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