Krewson, Stenger open to using statewide vote to decide on proposed city-county merger
Updated 2:15 pm Jan. 4 with police consolidation proposal — The top elected officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County agree that a plan to combine the two jurisdictions needs to go to a statewide — and not just local — vote.
It comes as the group that’s been studying the possibility of a city-county merger is expected to roll out its proposal in the coming weeks.
An organization called Better Together has been studying the concept of a city-county union for nearly five years. The St. Louis Business Journal reported that the plan could include city and county residents electing a mayor, assessor and prosecutor — and a 33-person council serving as a legislative branch. Better Together Executive Director Nancy Rice said a task force coming up with a plan “has not yet finalized its report.”
Though the Better Together report has yet to be released, there is already one competing proposal emerging — the merging of the St. Louis Metropolitan and St. Louis County police departments.
Under a proposal from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, municipal police departments would remain intact. The city and unincorporated parts of St. Louis County would be divided into 17 different precincts, with an emphasis on keeping attractions along the central corridor safe.
The combined department would have about 3,400 officers and a budget of $354 million.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch first reported the existence of the proposal on Thursday. St. Louis Public Radio has since been provided with a copy, though a spokesman for the department emphasized that it was never intended to be made public and “it is very premature for further discussion at this time.”
One lingering question about the Better Together proposal is whether only city and county voters should decide on it, or if the matter should go to a statewide vote.
Both St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger have said they are comfortable with a statewide vote.
“The reason why it has to be a statewide vote, as I understand it, is this is a new type of a county, the new metro city-county. It doesn’t exist currently,” Krewson said Thursday. “And so that has to be a state constitutional amendment in order to do that. There are hundreds of things to still be decided and worked out though about how, if that passes in 2020, how the old city and the old county will actually put themselves together.”
Stenger expressed similar sentiments on Tuesday soon after he was sworn in for a second term. He emphasized he’s waiting to see the final proposal before rendering a verdict.
“To achieve the real consolidation and cooperation and the defragmentation that our region most desperately needs is by a statewide vote,” Stenger said. “Because it has to be done through a constitutional amendment. And while I have always said, and I continue to say, it would be great to see just a local vote, I don’t think we would be able to achieve anything that the report calls for with just a local vote, unfortunately.”
Missouri’s Constitution has a process in place to somehow combine the city and county through a local vote. While there are several specific possibilities listed, it allows the creation of a group known as the Board of Freeholders to “formulate and adopt any other plan for the partial or complete government of all or any part of the city and the county.” There’s no guarantee, however, that the board will put forward the exact plan Better Together wants up for a vote — or if it can even handle all aspects of Better Together’s proposal. And efforts to merge the city and county through a local vote have failed over the past few decades.
A statewide vote broaches the possibility of city and county voters rejecting a merger plan — but it still going into effect if people in other parts of the state vote for it by a big enough margin. When they helped launch the Better Together process in 2013, then-Mayor Francis Slay and then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley stressed that any proposal needed to be locally decided.
Asked about that scenario of a merger happening against city and county voters’ wishes, Krewson said, “I think that’s a legitimate question.”
“The way that St. Louis gained control over its police department was a statewide vote,” Krewson said. “We live under the constitution of the state. So it’s not terribly unusual. The way we got home rule was through a statewide vote. So these things often have to be amended at the state level if we want to have an entirely new type of city-county.”
Stenger added, “I think we really need to see what the plan is and what the reaction to be of our residents.”
“I’m hearing all kinds of good things about it,” Stenger said. “And so I don’t want to prejudge anything. I’d like to see what it shows. And I mean, certainly there are a number of different scenarios that could play out. But we won’t know until we really see the final product.”
Rice said Better Together’s task force expects “completion and public release” of a report this month “and look forward to sharing the details of their proposal at that time.”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann