City-County Merger Plan Would Give Local College Faculty Power Over Drawing Council Districts
If a merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County is approved, faculty at a local university would draw the initial boundaries for a 33-member council — a move designed to limit partisan politics from influencing the districts.
Yet since St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, both Democrats, would choose the demographer getting first crack at drawing lines, some wonder if the mapmaking process will truly be independent.
Better Together’s proposal, which could go to a statewide vote next year, authorizes Stenger and Krewson to appoint one or more faculty members from a local university to draw council lines. Districts would have equal populations, be “compact and contiguous,” and conform with the U.S. Constitution and federal laws, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That plan has to be submitted to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the St. Louis County Council by Sept. 1, 2021. Those two chambers can amend the proposal. But if the council and the board don’t pass an identical plan by Dec. 31, 2021, then the original plan created by the faculty goes into effect.
Chris Pieper, an attorney who helped craft the Better Together constitutional amendment, said the language is similar to what happened during a city-county merger in Louisville. The task force that came up with the city-county merger plan, he said, wanted to "use a process that was based on expertise as opposed to politics."
“You can never fully depoliticize this,” Pieper said. “But it attempts to depoliticize it where it wasn’t solely politicians who may be running for those offices [drawing the lines].”
Stenger said this process was somewhat similar to what happened in 2011, when a federal court decided what St. Louis County Council boundaries would look like. He noted that University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor David Kimball ended up drawing the boundaries that were ultimately adopted.
“It’s not a political process. It’s a process where I think fairness is extremely important,” Stenger said. “And that’s why it’s called upon for a demographer to actually perform that function. Not the mayor, and not me.”
Question of influence
After examining the language in Better Together’s amendment, Kimball questioned whether giving Stenger and Krewson the power to appoint the faculty member or members would give them influence over the composition of the initial map.
He said it would give the two chief executives the ability to “choose somebody they like to draw the boundaries,” adding that county council members and city aldermen “would have a pretty short amount of time to adopt some alternative.”
Kimball also said there are opportunities to either aid potential candidates that are close to Stenger and Krewson or hurt adversaries who may want to run for seats on the new council.
“And so, maybe they draw a district where [St. Louis County Councilman] Sam Page is drawn in with [state Rep.] Tracy McCreery or some other Democrat who might be interested in running for a council seat against him,” Kimball said.
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission and a prominent supporter for a 2018 constitutional amendment overhauling state legislative redistricting, said last month that requiring the county council and board of aldermen to adopt identical plans is a “high standard” that will give someone like Stenger much of the power over the new council’s map.
He also questioned why members of university faculty would be best to draw the boundaries for the council districts.
“If we’re talking about a process that’s going to impact people, then using such specific language to use the word ‘faculty’ to suggest that the only voices that will come to be part of this will those that are somehow academically credentialed — and, by the way, we didn’t even say what academic credential that would be — is somehow problematic if you’re talking about a racial-equity framework,” said Wilson, the president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation.
There are some barriers to Stenger and Krewson drawing a map to solely elect their allies.
For one thing, a number of seats on the new council will encompass overwhelmingly Republican areas in western St. Louis County — places where neither Stenger nor Krewson would have much influence. Since St. Louis and St. Louis County are both Democratic jurisdictions, Democrats will almost certainly hold a large majority on the new council.
It’s also possible that candidates are politically aligned with Stenger or Krewson could lose their elections in 2022. Even though Stenger was a supporter of the current county council map, none of the people serving currently are considered reliable allies. In fact, Councilwomen Rochelle Walton Gray and Lisa Clancy ousted two of Stenger’s closest council backers in 2016 and 2018.
“I think also if I were advising the mayor and transition mayor, I would say that the voters are pretty clear that this person should be a neutral expert who is drawing the plan,” Pieper said. “And I think if they are appointing someone who is a member of the faculty who is not a neutral expert, there’s pressure from folks [in the media], as well as the potential legal claim related to their compliance with this, that provides another check.”
Stenger added “everything that is done in the process is going to be subject to the scrutiny of our local federal courts,” adding there are a “good number of safeguards to ensure that process is fundamentally fair and constitutional.”
Indeed, Kimball said “having control over redistricting doesn’t always lead to what you want.”
Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
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