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Government, Politics & Issues

Growing pains: Franklin County debates whether to change the way it's governed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 18, 2009 - The signs of Franklin County's explosive growth are obvious.

Just drive into the county's booming, and largest, riverfront community of Washington, Mo. Bulldozers and other road-building equipment line Highway 100 for miles from Interstate 44 leading into town. A multi-story brick bank building, just completed, looms over the quaint antique shops and cafes that fill downtown.

The scene is reminiscent of the landscape in another St. Louis suburb: St. Charles County, which 20 years ago was among the fastest-growing counties in the country when it opted to change its form of government and adopt home rule.

And in fact, some Franklin County residents say the debate over the April 7 proposal to adopt a home-rule charter boils down to one question:

Does Franklin County want to be more like St. Charles County, its neighbor to the northeast?

"Yes," says Bill Dickinson, owner of Osage Food Products in booming Washington, Mo. and a former St. Charles resident. While Dickinson loves his current community and county, he says it could benefit from the change that home rule could provide. "St. Charles County has one 911 system, for example, while we have half a dozen,'' Dickinson said.

"No,'' says Gene Scott, a former Franklin County presiding commissioner who is among the leaders of a predominantly rural group -- Citizens to Preserve Government Integrity -- who oppose the change, officially known as Proposition C. As Scott and like-minded residents like Margaret Barron see it, the current county setup isn't broke and doesn't need fixing.

"I'm against the proposed charter, based on what I know,'' Barron said.

Board of commissioners or county council?

Franklin County currently is run, like most Missouri counties, by a full-time, three-member board of commissioners. If Proposition C is approved, the county would join four others in the state -- St. Louis, St. Charles, Jackson and (soon) Jefferson counties -- which are run by a county executive and seven-member county council.

Under Missouri law, a county must have at least 95,000 residents to qualify for home rule.

The proposed Franklin County charter was drawn up by a 14-member, bipartisan commission set up after the county voted last year to consider such a proposal. By law, the commission had no more than a year to get its proposed charter on the ballot. The April 7 ballot is a couple months ahead of schedule but was chosen to save money, said former commissioner Sandy Lucy, who co-owns a gallery in Washington.

Lucy contends that Scott's group is putting out inaccurate information, which she says could threaten the proposed charter's passage. Scott says his side is simply sounding the alarm about potential problems.

The battle seems to cross party lines, although the more prominent supporters of the charter change -- including Lucy -- are Republicans. Many of the critics, including Scott, are Democrats.

Scott contends that the new government would lead to a larger, costlier bureaucracy that doesn't fit with Franklin County's present state. About 90 percent of the county's 922 square miles is unincorporated and predominantly rural, he said. "We don't fit the picture of St. Louis and St. Charles counties.''

Opponents also maintain that home rule could lead to less money for the county's school districts, because the schools now reap some income from traffic tickets. The proposed charter would allow for a municipal court system, which Scott says would take the income from such fines.

Lucy says the charter simply allows the creation of a municipal court, but doesn't mandate one and sets no timetable. A municipal court, should county residents decide they want one, could go after zoning violations, which now can't really be punished, she said.

As for the cost, Lucy said the seven part-time council members -- paid $10,000 apiece under the charter -- would be cheaper than the full-time commissioners who now earn almost $65,000 apiece.

She and other supporters say the chief benefit from the change would be broader representation because the seven council members would each represent a portion of the county. As it stands, Lucy said, the current commissioners generally hail from the population centers in the northern part of Franklin County that provide the bulk of its votes: Pacific, Washington and Union, the county seat.

Confusion about alternatives

Under the charter change, current presiding commissioner Ed Hillhouse would become the first county executive. The other two commissioners would see their jobs phased out until the new council was put in place in 2011. Later county executives also would be elected.

A former school superintendent, Hillhouse said he supports the proposed charter. He says Franklin County's government could grow whether it remains with its current system, or adopts a new one.

But he acknowledges that the critics appear to have done a better job of getting out their point of view.

In any case, voter turnout could be low -- meaning that the side that gets its allies out may have an edge on April 7.

A random survey along Washington's downtown streets and in its shops, for example, found that most people willing to offer an opinion were undecided. Or, as Norma Roth put it, "confused."

"I'm not sure if it's a good thing or not," said Roth, as she helped customers at a church resale shop.

Meanwhile, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann says he's staying out of the Franklin County fight, although he did appear on the latter's turf a year ago to address a group on behalf of his county's form of government. "I was simply saying 'Yeah, we're better off,'" Ehlmann recalled Tuesday.

Ehlmann said that the debate taking place in Franklin County sounds similar to the battle in St. Charles County in the 1970s, when St. Charles County voters first rejected a home-rule charter.

Ehlmann noted that St. Charles County now is more than three times the size of Franklin County, which is why he is intrigued by any comparisons. "They'd do better to look at Jefferson County,'' he said.

Home rule in Jefferson County

Jefferson County's voters overwhelmingly approved home rule last November. The county's three-member commission is now in the process of transforming its government into the county executive-county council model.

Presiding commissioner Chuck Banks said he opposed the change, as did his two fellow commissioners. Now, he's set to be the first Jefferson County executive when the first county council is elected in 2010.

Like the critics in Franklin County, Banks said he was -- and remains -- concerned about the potentially higher cost and growth of the new county government. "The upside is, citizens will have their local representatives sitting on the council,'' Banks said. "Government will be slower (than the three-commissioner model) but more transparent."

Banks speculates that Jefferson County's changing demographics are a key reason why more than 70 percent of the county's voters last fall voted to change their form of government.

"A lot of these new residents come from St. Louis County," Banks said. "The type of government they had in St. Louis County is what they're used to." 

Hillsboro lawyer Derrick Good sat on the 14-member commission that drew up Jefferson County's new charter. He says the new form of government doesn't have to be more expensive. Among the welcome changes, he said, will be a uniform set of easily accessible county ordinances, which Jefferson County doesn't currently have.

Good likens the debate that took place in Jefferson County to that of an older teenager. "You're at a stage in life, where you have to decide whether to remain under your parents' rule or move out and become your own person,'' Good said.

Deciding whether a county is ready for home rule, he added, isn't much different. 

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