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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri Senate appears ready to approve local control of St. Louis police

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2011 - The Missouri Senate appears on the verge of approving a measure to end 150 years of state control of the St. Louis police department.

Senators debated the particulars at length Monday and have sent the bill to the fiscal oversight panel for the standard review.

But final passage hinges on a collective bargaining agreement reached -- perhaps this afternoon -- between the Police Officers Association and the Board of Police Commissioners.

Senate backers had hoped to confirm new board member Tom Irwin in time to make the afternoon meeting because Irwin is expected to support an agreement. However, he had yet to be confirmed by the start of the board's 2 p.m. meeting. 

The board and the police group have been haggling over an agreement for a year. The police association also has long been an opponent of shifting control back to City Hall.

Once the bargaining agreement is reached, the Senate is expected to consider final approval of the local control bill, a spokeswoman confirmed this morning.

If approved before Friday's end of session, the measure will go to Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who has been cool to the idea of local control.

Since fellow Democrats are pressing for passage, the governor may be in a difficult position -- especially since Republicans controlling the General Assembly now appear to support returning control of the police department to St. Louis elected officials.

The latest events have upset the St. Louis Tea Party, which had been working with the police group to kill the local-control bill, particularly after the state House approved the measure in February. "The police association basically threw us under the bus,'' said lobbyist Gary Wiegert, who works for the Tea Party and also is a member of the police group.

Wiegert said that party activists, including about 160 police officers, had been assured of the bill's demise at a meeting about two weeks ago. But in the last couple days, Tea Party leaders got wind of the behind-the-scenes deal, he said.

Today, Wiegert was the state Capitol in what he fears is a vain attempt to block final Senate passage. "We're 'David against Goliath,' " he said.

The Missouri House overwhelmingly approved local control in February, but the issue seemed stuck in the Senate since then -- largely because of the association's longstanding opposition.  The wary senators included Sens. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, and Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.

By Monday night, both senators registered their support with the final version of the bill. Among other things, it includes Chappelle-Nadal's amendment restricting police involvement in politics -- in particular, whoever is police chief. Chappelle-Nadal waved copies of old campaign brochures featuring endorsements or supportive photos by former chiefs of police.

The bill now calls for police chiefs to face fines of up to $5,000 for each time they get involved in politics, and the loss of their job, Fines for lower-level police are set at $500.  An earlier version had smaller fines.

The local-control bill no longer has any specific reference to an earlier agreement that linked local control to a collective bargaining agreement between the association and the current five-person Board of Police Commissioners.  The provision was dropped when some Republican state senators -- notably Jason Crowell of Cape Girardeau -- threatened to block passage unless any reference to collective bargaining among public employees was dropped.

Instead, all sides agreed to set in motion the timetable that could result in a collective bargaining agreement today, clearing the way for the final Senate vote.

Irwin is a key linchpin in reaching the final deal. He was nominated by Nixon last week.

Irwin is executive director of Civic Progress, the group of St. Louis' largest employers, and has a long history of public service. Irwin is trusted by all the parties, and all sides, in the longstanding local-control fight, those involved say.

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