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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: Municipal woes rekindle interest in disincorporation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2013: Sherry Brackins is part of an exclusive group of St. Louis County residents who hail from Uplands Park. But if she had her way, Brackins would reside in a bigger governmental entity – unincorporated St. Louis County.

Brackins is leading a petition drive to dissolve the north St. Louis County village of around 445 people. She cites “dysfunction” in city government, as well as handing over “too much power and responsibility” to people “who don’t have the slightest clue what they’re doing.”

“I think we should just get everybody out there and lock the doors,” Brackins said.

Disincorporation gained some attention in 2011, when St. George residents overwhelmingly voted to disincorporate. Now that issue is in the news again because of Uplands Park as well as reports about Wellston’s low pay for police officers and its inability to feed prisoners.

Bigger municipalities have also had high-profile problems in recent months: Brentwood received a “poor” rating from the state auditor for various degrees of mismanagement, while Ellisville went through political chaos with the impeachment and reinstatement of its mayor.

At least one policymaker with experience in the battle to disincorporate St. George – state Rep. Bob Burns, D-St. Louis County – says municipalities may have been worthwhile when St. Louis County was less developed. But Burns says that “municipalities have outgrown their usefulness,” adding that the “professionalism” that St. Louis County provides is superior to any local government.

“What a municipality does, is turn neighbor against neighbor,” said Burns, adding that residents often bicker over divided loyalties to elected officials. “So it creates someone’s little kingdom. And inevitably, that filters into money and funds being mishandled and people questioning into the funds that are being paid into this local municipality.”

But while Brackins and Burns agree about the benefits of being unincorporated, they disagree over whether the current statutory process is adequate.

State statutes dictate that a county must order an election for disincorporation “upon petition of one-half of the voters" of a fourth-class city or a village. If the ballot item gets at or above 60 percent of the vote, the entity becomes part of the county.

(Staurt Haynes of the Missouri Municipal Leage told the Beacon that state law is murkier for third-class cities such as Wellston. Haynes said Wellston residents may have to vote to become a fourth-class city before disincorporation is possible.)

Burns said those guidelines are more than adequate, adding that “lord knows the state legislature has enough problems running itself -- we don’t need to be taking on issues that are really not our jurisdiction.” He says that process encourages "grassroots" participation. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said they’re not in favor of changing requirements to get a disincorporation vote on the ballot.

Brackins, though, said the statutory threshold is too strenuous.

“It would be nice if we didn’t have to have as many signatures. I mean 50 percent is a lot of signatures,” Brackin said. “And it’s really hard to catch people. You have a lot of people who have kids, they’re registered voters and away at school. You have senior citizens. You have sickly people who are in nursing homes. They haven’t even voted for a long time. It’s just really difficult.”

Perhaps the last notable attempt to change disincorporation procedures occurred in 2012, when state Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, sponsored a bill requiring St. Louis County municipalities to meet a detailed list of “minimum standards.” A city would have to have a balanced budget, a law enforcement unit, an audit by a certified public accountant, and a cash management and accounting system, among other things.

If a municipality failed to meet certain guidelines, a court could impose a number of remedies, including:

  • removing elected officials from office,
  • forcing the town to vote on a merger with an adjacent municipality,
  • or placing a disincorporation election on the ballot upon receipt of 40 percent of eligible signatures.

Diehl’s bill didn’t make headway in 2012. One of the people who opposed the measure was Henry Iwenofu, the chairman of Uplands Park's Board of Trustees.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iwenofu’s vowing to fight Brackins’ effort to disincorporate his village. He said it goes against the concept of small government and democracy, contending that Thomas Jefferson "would be turning in his grave."

“Let’s assume that we’re trying to have good governance,” Iwenofu said. “When the United States Congress is not functioning, do you call Mexico to take over the United States? Or call Canada? Or call the United Nations? The founding fathers intended to have smaller government. And we in Uplands Park are finding solutions. We are not different from any other government with a budget shortfall.”

Iwenofu said that the fight over Uplands Park is St. Louis County’s opening salvo to get rid of smaller municipalities. Disincorporation is nothing more than an attempt by the county to grab more land and more resources, he said.

“Once Uplands Park is gone, the other municipalities will be taken step by step,” he said.

But Erby – whose district includes Uplands Park – said she and county officials didn’t get involved in the Uplands Park situation until they were asked.

“It should be driven by the citizens, by the community,” Erby said. “And that’s the only way we’ll even go out and discuss it – if it’s driven by the citizens. We did not approach them. They approached us.”

In the arena

Like others who followed the trials and tribulations of small municipalities, Alex Ihnen said that any effort to disincorporate should come from within a municipality – not through a fiat from the county executive or county council.

But Ihnen – a University City resident and founder of the NextSTL website – said that Dooley and other county officials should be more forceful in pointing out inequities in struggling towns. He said he wants to see a “kind of a push or a way to highlight the issue for people that live in that municipality.”

“The question to [Dooley] is whether he believes there is a county-level role for informing county residents of how well they’re being served,” Ihnen said. “Is there a positive role? Like an ombudsman role? What responsibility does the county have that municipalities within its borders are actually operating in a way that serves its own residents?”

Inhen isn’t the only person wanting a more aggressive posture from county officials. St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, Tweeted out in late July that when a municipality “is too small/broke to function, hurting its own residents & neighbors” St. Louis County “should pressure to disincorporate.”

And Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, Tweeted that Wellston’s problems with policing and jailing have to be “bad for public safety in adjacent nabes in like STL.”

“It would be easy for Dooley to talk about how limited he is and what he can’t do,” Ihnen said. “But ultimately, he has the highest office in the county and is responsible for making sure that people are served.”

Asked about whether the county actively encourages disincorporation, Dooley said, “We don’t go anywhere where we’re not invited.”

“It’s a residential opportunity,” Dooley said. “The residents can ask us. The council can ask us. It can be done in a number of different ways. But the county does not do it on its own.”

Dooley also said he's "not concerned about how many municipalities we have," but about the "quality of service they provide." And he added that “a lot of the municipalities in St. Louis County – a vast majority of them work very well.”

“People are happy where they live. I live in a small municipality,” said Dooley, who was an elected official in Northwoods before getting elected to county government. “I’m happy where I live. So again, the size does not tell the story about the quality of life in any municipality. It’s the service that is provided. Not the size.”

For her part, Brackins said the county has been “very helpful.” She said county officials “never swayed us one way or the other,” adding “they’ve always been there just to inform.” 

And if Brackins gathers enough signatures, Iwenofu says he’s ready to fight to keep his town on the map. 

“If it gets on the ballot, we are going to try to best to see what we can do to push back,” he said. "Now if it goes through, I can’t control what the people do.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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