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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

On the Trail: The challenge of uniting divided St. Louis region, as told by Wash U professor

Will Ross, the associate dean for diversity at Washington University, is part of a three-person panel tasked with coming up with a plan that could overhaul St. Louis' government.
File photo I Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Will Ross, the associate dean for diversity at Washington University, is part of a three-person panel tasked with coming up with a plan that could overhaul St. Louis' government.

Will Ross may play a substantial role in ending the more than 140-year separation between St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The Memphis, Tennessee, native is the associate dean for diversity at Washington University and a member of a three-person panel that’s been given a year to put forward a plan to reshape St. Louis’ government. It’s part of an effort from a group called Better Together, which has released a number of studies criticizing the city-county separation.

Ross spoke about the challenges of designing a new regional government. Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been edited for clarity and length:

If the end result of this panel is a larger, more consolidated regional government, what confidence do you have that it will serve all the people of the St. Louis region better than what we have now?

I think the confidence comes from the participation of the broad network of leaders. … We have forward-thinking leaders who understand that we have to think collectively. We have great leaders in all of our municipalities.

And I don’t think that we should undermine anyone who is promoting a different perspective, whether it be in a central municipality or one of the more westward municipalities. These are all great leaders who think what’s in the best interest of their constituencies.

There’s some concern that the proposal from the panel will be put up for a statewide vote as opposed to a vote just in the city or the county. What would be your preferred route to get whatever comes out of this panel to be implemented?

I really think this is a regional issue. I mean, this is an issue that affects the St. Louis community — the city and the county. It affects our kids. It affects our schools. It affects our fire departments, our police departments. It affects our ability to buy a good home, to raise our families. This is a St. Louis issue and this is best resolved through forums that involve St. Louisans.

I hope that process continues. I’m aware about what’s being considered at the state. I’m now speaking candidly as my personal perspective: I don’t think that’s the best route to take, to put this in the hands of a statewide ballot initiative. I think St. Louisans are proud of what we can do here at home. I want this to be a St. Louis project with a St. Louis outcome.

One of the things that has been a source of particular concern is that any proposal that comes out of this group is going to potentially dilute the political power of African-Americans. What confidence can you provide to the African-American residents of this region that their voices will not only not be diluted, but potentially made stronger after this effort?

Vinita Park Mayor James McGee speaks against proposed standards for polcie departments in St. Louis County in December 2015.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Vinita Park Mayor James McGee speaks against proposed standards for police departments in St. Louis County in December 2015. African-American elected officials have been highly critical of city-county merger proposals, contending those plans could hurt black political power.

We also have to recognize that there is a reality in that opinion. That opinion is based on a lot of history in St. Louis, when the African-American voice has been diluted intentionally through zoning policies or through restrictive covenants or through redlining gone awry. The history is there. And we have to recognize that also.

As an African-American who has been in the city for 37 years, I know that history well. And I understand why, as an African-American, as part of this community, I would have some skepticism about this — about our voting power or our rights being somewhat diluted. I get that. The key then is to structure a governance which truly is inclusive: A governance strategy which is based on this sense of egalitarianism where we can provide opportunities, resources, affordable housing, communities that have well-functioning schools.

We can create a governance structure which includes the voices and the phenomenally sophisticated leadership in our African-American community. If we don’t have inclusive governance, then yes, the African-American community has a legitimate right to be skeptical of this process.

Do you have any personal preferences about how you’d like to see St. Louis government structured? Would it be St. Louis joining as a municipality? Would it be St. Louis and St. Louis County combining governments? Would it be St. Louis and St. Louis County becoming one big city?

I think that I have an aspiration. And I can share that aspiration and that vision. My vision is a St. Louis region that functions as one region. It moves forward as one region and speaks with one voice.  It collects taxes and distributes those taxes as one region.

Yes, I want to see an effective St. Louis region. But I’m also pragmatic. And I recognize that’s aspirational. I think we can get there. But we can get there in many ways. There are many paths forward. I don’t have a preset way of thinking about how to get to my final aspiration. I am very open. I want to hear the sentiment of the people in St. Louis. I want to hear about their views on this. I think that what’s important is we all step back from this and reduce the discord, the vitriol, and we start listening to each other and start asking “Is there a way that we can do this that would make us much more efficient?” Are there ways of collaborating and coordinating services to reduce duplication and inefficiencies? Are there ways of us doing that to make us a more effective region going forward? Are there ways of truly reducing fragmentation?

I’ve given you my aspiration. But as someone who is heavily invested in success, I recognize that there’s many ways to get there.

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

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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