St. Louis County: nuttiest show in town?

by Richard Thomas

Two board members snarled and hissed at each other, one yelled “bullshit,” and three dozen county employees walked out, in another episode of the soap opera that is St. Louis County.
The source of flack at the Nov. 7 commissioners’ board meeting was the proposed health and dental plan rate hike for employees and retirees. Rates have been climbing for the last three years and were expected go up another 12.5 percent in 2018. 
In October projections turned out better than expected, but still not great. The reserve fund now covers only three months; a healthy health care fund covers four to six months. So the Health Insurance Committee, which includes administration and labor representatives, came up with an 8 percent increase to bolster the fund.

The committee did not reach a consensus, which is unusual but not unheard of. AFSCME was on board with the rate hike but Teamsters Local 320 was the lone voice of dissent.
So Teamsters packed the room on Nov. 7, many wearing road crew or hunting attire, having taken off from either work or deer camp to attend.
Commissioner Keith Nelson (6th District, Virginia) made a sarcastic motion to amend the increase to zero percent and gave his best Rush Limbaugh impression:

“Look, folks, I really feel today like I should be moving a zero percent interest … and zero percent isn’t the right thing to do. It’s not. Okay? … It seems like on this board we love consternation. We love when things are going wrong. And we know this county is not run right. It’s run terrible. I think if I’m at zero, that will assure that at least one vote is going to be 8 percent, where it should be. And that’s the right thing we should be doing. I am really tired of politics. Just sick and tired of it. So I’m going to move for zero. Let’s see if gets some support, Mr. Chair. Not the right thing to do. I don’t think anyone should support me. But I will move a zero percent increase.”

No one seconded the motion.
Commissioner Tom Rukavina (4th District, Ely) asked for a smaller rate hike of 6.5 percent, a motion that failed as well. He also complained he didn’t learn about the 8 percent figure until a few days before the Oct. 24 Committee of the Whole meeting, when board members first discussed it.
His comments turned into a reply-rant against Nelson, on whether or not commissioners are politicians, and whether they should agree:

“Commissioner Nelson, I don’t know, your comment about politics and disagreement. I can’t agree with my wife every day. And we are politicians, we’re elected officials, of course there’s gonna be politics. You play ‘em, I play ‘em, everybody plays because we are elected officials that have different opinions. And, you know, I just am flabbergasted that, you know, to state that we should agree amongst ourselves all the time. I’ve been around in politics since I was 23 years old.”

Never one to be outranked or out-ranted, Nelson, who’s been on the county board 15 years, lit back:

“If someone calls me a politician, you know, politicians should be at the end of a parade with scoops picking up what the horses leave on the parade route. I’m not a politician. As a county commissioner I consider myself a manager ...
Commissioner, to tell me you heard about 8 percent on the Friday before the meeting, that’s bullshit. You heard about 12 and a half percent in June, July, August, September. In fact you heard about it before that.”

He then tried appealing to the Teamsters:

“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the work of the Teamsters, of AFSCME, you are the frontline troops. Well folks, we all don’t always agree. And then the decision comes here. And it shouldn’t be political when it comes here. It shouldn’t be hearing from the last group. It should be making the right decision for the plan. And again, I understand y’all are gonna pay up one side on your plans, an 8 percent increase, and for those of you who are taxpayers in this county, I understand there’s going to be an impact. I get that.”

But the Teamsters weren’t having it; they got up and shuffled out. Maybe they were offended by the curse word, but not likely since, well, they’re Teamsters, not delicate flowers. More likely they just got tired of Nelson and knew which way the vote inevitably was going. 
As they left Nelson said, “And I will stop at that, Mr. Chair, because disrespect is disrespect.”
Rukavina followed the Teamsters out the door and the board chair called a 5-minute recess -- normally something done when an angry citizen is having difficulty being civil, but here it was board members themselves. To the depleted room, Nelson said, “I apologize to everyone who’s left here. B.S. is something I clean out of my pen at home.”

Once the meeting got back in session, Rukavina had to get the last word in:

“You know, Commissioner Nelson, you don’t have to get mean when people disagree with you, and when you do, that’s the problem ... You’re not the emperor of St. Louis County. You’re one of seven. So when we don’t agree and you threaten and whine over there, it’s just absurd … Maybe you should just settle down a little bit and not get so personal because, heh, if you want to get personal, I sure as hell can get personal, too.”

The board ended up passing the 8 percent increase 6-1, with Nelson and Rukavina both voting yes. Huzzah! The politicians agreed on something.

(Clarification 12/28/17: The amendment to raise health plan premiums by 6.5 percent was proposed by Commissioner Mike Jugovich with support from Rukavina.)