Having a conversation with St. Louis Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza is like trying to chase a grease-covered pig down an ice-covered flight of stairs while wearing roller skates.
There's always lots of skidding, accompanied by long-winded asides, sudden shifts and whoops-he-got-away moments -- shadowed by the notion that the pursuer could seriously bust his ass at any moment, leaving the pursued free to dodge another day.
One of the best examples of Favazza's ever-artful juking is his evolving position on whether his office should be elected in a citywide vote, as it is now under St. Louis' crazy-quilt system of municipal and so-called county offices mandated by the state. The other option is to make the post an appointed position, which advocates of the recently passed home-rule referendum say fits their notion of the city's aching need to streamline its government and significantly reduce the number of elected officeholders.
Favazza, a lawyer who is the son of a South Side butcher, presides over about 200 employees as chief of one of the city's eight "county" offices. Each of these offices is a little fiefdom with its own set of employees -- about 1,000 in all -- who are seen as vestiges of the city's old patronage system. Several of these posts split responsibilities that reform advocates say could be more efficiently handled under one roof -- most notably, the treasurer, the license collector and the collector of revenue.
It's always been a mystery to the Speedloader why it takes three political offices to collect the coin the city gleans from its citizens and businesses and then bank it. Equally mystifying is the need for 28 aldermen in a city of 375,000 people -- the city's political life is permanently focused on the parochial instead of the global.
When he first won office in 1998, Favazza was an outsider -- not a particular favorite of the South Side political establishment. And he campaigned as a reformer, telling voters the holder of the post should be appointed by the city's circuit judges and promising he'd push for a law down in Jeff City to make it so.
"I had an opinion, and I still have an opinion: that this office should be an appointed office," says Favazza. "I don't think I've changed from what I said."
But he sure didn't get on the stump with this notion when he ran for re-election this year. In fact, back in May, he killed a last-minute state Senate amendment that would have given the circuit judges the power to appoint the circuit clerk, after successfully heading off similar moves in earlier legislative sessions.
Here's where the pork gets a little greasy: "I said I think the office ought to be appointed by the circuit judges, but since then, experience has taught me there might be a better way."
Experience of the brass-knuckles-and-firefight variety.
Favazza is locked in an ongoing blood feud with the judges over his plan to put public court records on the Internet, making it possible for anybody with Web access to surf through criminal cases in their neighborhoods and check up on which judges are law-and-order and which are criminal-coddlers [Geri Dreiling, "Judging Mariano," April 3]. Given the notoriously unhelpful staff in Favazza's office and the presence of only one rickety computer, available in just five-minute increments to everyday citizens who wanted to track down a case, this seemed like the ultimate public service.
Favazza's chief judicial antagonist is the circuit's current presiding judge, Margaret Neill, who killed Favazza's project only to see St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce put up her own Web site where Joe Citizen can find out what happened to the drug dealer or burglar who got busted on his street. Joyce, the feisty and independent South Side Shark, has been highly critical of judges' giving light sentences or probation to serious criminals and is seen by the judges as the point woman for Mayor Francis Slay's attempt to pin the city's crime problems on them [Nesbitt, "Crime Story," July 24].
Given the Shark's impertinence, it's an open question as to who pisses off Neill and her judicial allies the most, Joyce or Favazza. Legal sources say Neill's bitterness toward Joyce runs so deep that it has dipped to the petty level of assigned parking slots in the new criminal-courts administration building -- a call that is Neill's to make.
But the judges' animosity toward Favazza goes way beyond his Internet project. In essence, they're pissed off about his independence, his refusal to kowtow to the expectation that he would be their servant, holding office to do their bidding. They're also pissed off by his tendency to spend his office's money without their approval -- he ponied up $10,000 for his Internet plan.
All this unpleasantness has Favazza singing a slightly different tune on the question of whether his office should be an elected or an appointed one.
"I do think it needs to be an appointed office," he says. "I do not think it should solely be a decision by the bench."
His modified warbling goes like this: Put the notion of making his office an appointed one up to a citywide vote. If voters back that notion, give the mayor final approval over whomever the judges pick to fill the post. Give the clerk a five-year ride in office and require a two-thirds majority of the judges to approve any decision to fire that person.
Some of the city's political sharpies agree. "If it's going to be appointed, it shouldn't be by the judges. There needs to be somebody independent in there," says one.
Talk's cheap, though, and Favazza is still in office -- as an elected official. That says it all for St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker, who sees the circuit clerk as nothing more than another St. Louis political hack jealously guarding his turf. And that's bad news for the reformers who want to take the new power of the home-rule referendum and change the structure of St. Louis government.
"Speaking for myself, my excessive disappointment in Mr. Favazza's retreat from his commitment has not abated," he says. "I think the fact that he's still in office is the best evidence of how deeply entrenched the political-patronage system is in this city and how vigorously that system will resist any attempt to change that."
Former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., who supports the reform effort, sees such resistance as one of St. Louis' most debilitating political illnesses.
"It's a vulture culture; it's a St. Louis culture," he says. "We're not only unwilling to step up and recognize things that may be good, we're suspicious of each other and suspicious of anything new or looking like change."
Opponents of reform are already gearing up. Two weeks ago, two bills were introduced by St. Louis aldermen that would push for a citywide vote in April aimed at maintaining the status quo. That includes keeping the city's eight county offices elected posts, along with the jobs controlled by those offices -- a ghost of past patronage power.
The reformistas leading the home-rule effort say they're disappointed in Aldermen Irving Clay Jr. (D-26th), Thomas Bauer (D-24th), Craig Schmid (D-10th) and Daniel Kirner (D-25th) and suggest that these politicians are deaf to the will of the people. In other words, they're ignoring the considerable margin of victory the measure garnered November 5 in the city and county and statewide. In St. Louis, the initiative won 66 percent of the vote; statewide, the measure got almost 70 percent of the vote.
"This won't be a major roadblock to us, but we wish it hadn't happened," says Bert Walker, chief honcho of Citizens for Home Rule Inc. "It's done by people who are not friendly to what we want to do. The status quo people, the people who don't want any change, have spoken, and it's surprising, considering how much support we got from the voters."
Walker and his allies, including former Mayors Vince Schoemehl, Jim Conway and the Boz, plan an extended round of town-hall-style meetings with neighborhood associations, ward organizations and other civic groups -- a slow-rolling campaign aimed at hammering out a reform plan to put before the voters by 2004.
"It's possible, but I think unlikely, that folks say, 'Hell, no -- we want things to remain exactly the way they are,'" Walker says. "We'd pack up our bags and say, 'Oh well, we wasted a lot of effort and a lot of years.'"
Expect a long, drawn-out battle, says Dierker:
"This will be Stalingrad -- a house-to-house struggle."
And bet on one of the snipers' being the butcher's boy -- talking fast and wearing a coat of grease.