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Government, Politics & Issues

New wrinkles threaten to unravel local-control effort

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2011 - The St. Louis Police Board approved this afternoon a long-stalled collective bargaining agreement with the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

But the agreement is no longer the crucial piece in a carefully constructed puzzle that city officials and their allies hoped would lead to the state Senate's approval of a bill granting the city control of its own police department, which has been under state supervision for 150 years.

The puzzle pieces got tossed into the air this afternoon when Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, declared that his chamber's final vote on local control was on hold until the state House acts on an unrelated measure that, coincidentally, is of equal importance to St. Louis area legislators -- and more important to business groups.

That measure, still pending in the House, is the economic development bill that, among other things, contains $360 million in tax breaks tied to the St. Louis quest to persuade China to locate a new cargo hub at Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

The Senate approved the development package earlier this month and wants the House to follow suit. But House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville and a supporter of local control, disagrees with some of the restrictions on tax credits in the economic development bill.

Such tit-for-tat maneuvers are common during the final week of Missouri's legislative sessions. But the linkage of local control to the China Hub effort -- dubbed "Aerotropolis" -- has confused and concerned some legislative players, particularly those in the St. Louis area.

Local control is "held hostage, which is unfortunate -- especially at a time when everyone is on board," said state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who had led the successful drive to get the local-control bill through House several months ago.

Nasheed was pacing outside the House chamber, as various other House players engaged in closed-door negotiations over the tax credits.

Nasheed added that she had backed the "Aerotropolis" effort, but that she now may vote against it because she also opposed some of the provisions on tax credits, such as eliminating tax breaks for low-income renters and limiting credits for new low-income housing.

"I'm not for giving to the rich by taking from the poor,'' Nasheed said.

Over on the Senate side, several late-breaking elements were threatening the local-control effort. Besides the tax credit fight, aides to state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, acknowledged that she had put a "hold" on the confirmation vote of Tom Irwin to the St. Louis Police Board.

Irwin's nomination was another piece in the local-control puzzle. He was supported by the two major St. Louis factions in the local-control fight -- the police officers group who have long opposed it and City Hall, which long has sought it. Irwin also ;was seen perhaps casting the deciding vote in the collective-bargaining deal.

But Wright-Jones was irked because she had not been told of Irwin's appointment beforehand. An aide said keeping her out of the loop was "a show of disrespect."

Irwin's nomination wasn't confirmed, as planned, before the Police Board's meeting so that he could take part. But it turned out that his vote wasn't necessary to forge the deal.

Later, in an interview, Wright-Jones said she had been disturbed about being kept out of the loop on the behind-the-scenes talks even though "I'm the senior member of the St. Louis delegation'' and a strong supporter of local control.

Wright-Jones added that she was open to allowing Irwin's nomination to come up for a Senate vote, but that she planned to then raise her concerns. For example, she said, Irwin is replacing Dr. Michael L. Gerdine, whose term expired Jan. 31, 2011. Wright-Jones noted that Gerdine is African-American and said she had questions about why he was being eased out. Irwin is white.

The deal also has upset the St. Louis Tea Party. The group's lobbyist, Gary Wiegert, who is a member of the police officers group, also was roaming the Capitol halls in a last-minute quest to kill the local-control bill.

The Tea Party group opposes ending state control as well as any sort of collective-bargaining agreement. "They threw us under the bus,'' Wiegert complained, referring to the association's behind-the-scenes deal with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and local-control supporters.

State Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington -- a key player in the pro-local control effort -- said he was frustrated that some were "using it as leverage" for other issues, including the tax-credit issue.

"It's a shame we can get this far and can't get it completed," he said.

State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, is an opponent of local control but says she's kept an open mind until the matter comes up for a final vote. In any case, she observed that nobody should be shocked by such surprises during the final week of the session.

"At this point," Cunningham said, "everything is pretty much tied to everything else."

Meanwhile, the police association lauded today's bargaining agreement as a "historic victory for rank-and-file police officers that guarantees them a seat at the table and unprecedented influence over their working conditions."

The agreement, the group added, is "the linchpin in a tenuous compromise that the Police Officers Association had reached with the mayor's office over the fate of the city control bill being debated in the legislature."

But at the moment in Jefferson City, that piece of the puzzle -- like so many others --appears to be irrelevant.

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