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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.

Freeholders To Meet Tuesday For First Time As St. Louis Appointees Remain In Limbo

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page's nominees to the Board of Freeholders await a committee hearing on Oct. 15, 2019, in Clayton.
File photo I Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page's nominees to the Board of Freeholders await a committee hearing on Oct. 15 in Clayton.

Members of a board that could reshape how St. Louis and St. Louis County are governed plan to meet for the first time on Tuesday morning in St. Louis City Hall.

But without representatives from the city, some of the members of the Board of Freeholders aren’t expecting the first gathering to feature a lot of definitive action. That likely won’t occur until an impasse is resolved over St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s appointees.

The freeholders will have a year to present a range of options to city and county voters — from consolidating specific services to combining St. Louis and St. Louis County governments.

So far, the board only has its nine county members and one gubernatorial appointee in place. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen has not approved Krewson’s appointees, as some African American aldermen want to see more representation from north St. Louis. 

“I don’t think tomorrow’s going to be at all any decision-making about what the future of St. Louis looks like,” said Jason Wilson, one of the nine St. Louis County members of the Board of Freeholders. “You can’t start solving those issues or discussing the issues until we actually have all hands on deck.”

Another St. Louis County member of the board, Katy Forand, expects Tuesday to feature “procedural housekeeping,” to meet “what the constitution says, but not to do anything substantial without our counterparts.”

“We’re very sensitive about starting this on the right note and in the right way,” Forand said. “We want to meet [requirements in the Missouri Constitution], but we want to do it in a way that doesn’t make it look like we’re trying to move on without the city. Because that’s not the case.” 

Joe Hodes, 16th Ward Republican committeeman, introduces himself to a committee of the Board of Aldermen on Monday. Hodes is one of nine people Mayor Lyda Krewson has nominated to serve on the Board of Freeholders. Oct. 7, 2019
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Joe Hodes, 16th Ward Republican committeeman, introduces himself to a committee of the Board of Aldermen last month. Hodes is one of nine people Mayor Lyda Krewson has nominated to serve on the Board of Freeholders.

The Board of Aldermen missed a deadline laid out in the constitution to have appointees in place. But it’s not clear whether approving nominees late will have any ramifications. In the 1950s, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a Board of Freeholders process wouldn’t be invalidated because the governor at the time was delayed in appointing his nominee.

Jim Brasfield, former mayor of Crestwood and a professor emeritus at Webster University, said he expects the board to do organizational work first, such as hiring staff, before asking the public about what sort of plan to embrace.

“Once they get themselves organized like that, and that could conceivably take a few weeks to get all of that organized, then I would expect they would probably start out by holding some kinds of public hearings,” said Brasfield, president of the group CityStrong that consists of current and former municipal officials. “If you have this kind of public hearing, there might be dozens of different individuals and groups — and everybody may have different suggestions and so on. I suspect that the board will probably … zero in on three to five different directions that might be taken.”

Expectations for the board

The Board of Freeholders process comes in the aftermath of the scuttled Better Together proposal, which would have created a metro government to oversee the city and county.

Unlike the Better Together plan, city and county voters will have to approve any change that the Board of Freeholders produces for it to take effect. And the record is mixed: Voters backed the creation of the Metropolitan Sewer District in the 1950s but have continually rejected plans to merge city and county governments.

When the board is whole, Wilson said members need to discuss more than “patchwork solutions.”

He wants to have a conversation about residents getting “a return on investment for our region,” which he said includes making sure people in north St. Louis and north St. Louis County are participants in the region’s economy.

“If we’re not focused on the origins and trying to get sustainable solutions like we would in business, then we’re playing games,” Wilson said. “I’m not in this space to do any tradeoffs and weird deals. We need to make sure that the city is benefiting and the north side of St. Louis is benefiting. Because that’s going to help the whole entire region when it comes to people participating in the economy.”

Forand said that she hopes the full board engages in a “respectful, deliberative conversation — and then it just hits the ground running.”

“It’s hard to say what’s really going to come of it, because I think really the possibilities are endless,” Forand said. “Everybody’s been waiting on the city to see what happens and how it happens — and try not to get anything real set. You don’t want to get your mind made up before half the group is even there. So, we’re just trying to do the bare minimum until we get everybody in the room.”

The board will have a year to come up with a plan to present to voters. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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