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Commentary: Looking ahead for the St. Louis mayor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2013 - Whoever is selected as mayor this spring will face a significant body of challenges. These challenges are not unique to St. Louis but affect those metropolises that no longer serve as headquarters, financial or industrial centers.

For St. Louis, considerable thought has to be given to the redirection of programs and policies to ensure stability and some growth. Its advantages can be disadvantages as well. For many, St. Louis is like a small town. There are few degrees of separation among its residents and a level of comfort with its “go along to get along” politics. This comfort, and a reticence to embrace change, lessens the likelihood of adaptation to the demands of the 21st century.

It is a given that a mayor has to address crime and education. These are two areas that defy easy remedy and bedevil most urban communities. As St. Louis assumes control of its police, for the first time since 1861, that presents opportunities to examine resource deployment and get enhanced feedback from citizens. Regarding the public schools, there are no magic bullets that guarantee better outcomes, and the mayor has no direct control. Trial and error and innovation at schools and in classrooms may make a difference but the struggle will not end quickly.

But there are other ways a mayor can affect positive outcomes. St. Louis already has strong neighborhoods that have profited from the commitment of neighbors and institutions. These neighborhoods have also received funding to increase the supply of housing through new construction and/or rehabilitation and assistance for small business development. Evaluating the progress should provide guideposts to help other areas grow. Increasing residents, including homeowners and businesses, provides new blood and will strengthen neighborhoods, perhaps St. Louis’ greatest resource.

In encouraging new employers and new homeowners, the mayor has to continue to sell the city. This includes using the media to publicize new developments and to highlight citizens working together to enhance their neighborhoods. Selling the city means selling city residents themselves. Optimism is a powerful stimulant.

Increasing the number of jobs in the city is also critical to its well being. Multiple strategies need to be employed. Small businesses throughout the city need to be encouraged. Larger employers are clearly desirable, and care should be taken to provide incentives for new job creation. Such incentives might entail the hiring of city residents or providing the training that is needed to make more residents employable.

Another critical area is governance. The city is run largely by the terms of its 1914 charter. Other cities may have been run similarly in 1914, but by and large they have changed to a stronger executive and a more streamlined operation. City voters took a first step this past November by voting to reduce the number of aldermen – a change that was proposed by politicians. That fact and postponing implementation for 10 years helped to secure passage. To ensure success in future reform endeavors, that pattern could be emulated. Mayors should be granted budgetary and contractual authority. The county offices need to be rethought. Whether they should be headed by an elected official needs to be a subject of debate.

Government, and the bureaucratic form it assumes, is never free from many kinds of misdeeds. Some reflect the venality of the specific city employees involved and some dereliction of responsibility. Governmental departments do not like to self-evaluate. Over time, they have become rigid and more wedded to their procedures than to their mission. Whoever serves as mayor needs to keep a careful eye on the administrative apparatus and see that implementation is subject to close scrutiny. It is not glamorous to oversee bureaucracy but it is hazardous not to.

Addressing governance could be linked to the city’s relationship to surrounding but independent St. Louis County. The county with 89 municipalities and unincorporated areas is fragmented. A number of those in and out of government have proposed that the city and county merge or that the city enter the county as another municipality. Internal reforms in the city could help clear the path. Some might fear dilution of their power but the truism of strength in numbers carries some force. All jurisdictions are affected by the same economic and social forces. Too often, too much energy is lost in competition among us. St. Louis’ mayor, elected in 2013, has the chance to try to make new arrangements possible so that the error of 1876 does not hurt us in perpetuity.

Journalists and others continue to compare St. Louis to Detroit. Both have had huge population losses, but St. Louis remains far more diverse and healthy. It has viable neighborhoods with active constituencies. People are still attracted by its historic housing stock and by its neighborliness.

With continuing attention to neighborhood enhancement, success can spread. Jobs are needed.  Addressing outdated governmental structures could make progress on housing and jobs easier. The path ahead is a rocky one and there will be a step backward for those few forward. However, the next four years represent opportunities, if the city’s key elected official chooses to seize them.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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