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Government, Politics & Issues
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.

Freeholders Stalemate Generates Frustration - And Questions About Its Future

President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed and current members of the Board of Freeholders listen as former Alderman Terry Kennedy welcomes the group.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed and members of the Board of Freeholders listen as former Alderman Terry Kennedy welcomes the group.

After the Board of Freeholders formed in September 2019, some supporters of the process were bullish that the 19-member panel could recommend significant changes to city and county government.

There’s just one big problem: The board hasn’t been able to do anything, thanks to a prolonged deadlock to approve the St. Louis appointees. It’s an outcome that’s left city policymakers frustrated — and vulnerable to costly consequences. 

“If you’re asking me personally as the president of the Board of Aldermen, I think this thing needs to move. I think it needed to move a month ago,” said St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. “It came out the gate sideways.”

The Board of Freeholders has the power to suggest to city and county voters consolidation of St. Louis and St. Louis County services. It could also recommend combining city and county governments — including having St. Louis become a municipality within St. Louis County.

The board is supposed to have nine county members, nine city members and one member appointed by the governor.

No one disputes that St. Louis’ inability to confirm St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s nominees is a violation of a constitutionally mandated deadline to approve members of the Freeholders. But there is uncertainty about what the practical implications are, including whether the delay means the board will have less time to come up with a plan to present to city and county voters.

And even if the city names its members, there’s no guarantee the board’s plan will find favor at the ballot box — especially since the track record for success is so spotty.

“Neither the city or the county put this together. The municipal league did,” said St. Louis Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, referring to how the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis circulated the petition to launch the Board of Freeholders process. “I don’t think they did enough checking. Because I don’t think the city and the county really want to merge. So I don’t think you’re going to get much out of it anyway.”

Deep freeze

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson answers questions from reporters about the Board of Freeholders process.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson answers questions from reporters about the Board of Freeholders process.

St. Louis elected officials attribute the delay to approve freeholder nominees to several factors. One is that the chairman of the committee tasked with approving them, Alderman Sam Moore, has been dealing with health issues, and Reed said there’s been an attempt to work around his schedule to get aldermen back to the table.

“I believe we’re right there in terms of a resolution for everything,” Reed said. “I think that once we get the chairman here, I think all of that stuff will take care of itself by moving that thing out to the full board.”

But the largest conflict behind the deadlock is that aldermen didn’t like the nominees Krewson selected to be freeholders. Members of the aldermanic black caucus have been particularly critical about the lack of representation from north St. Louis.  

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Having strong representation from that largely African American area is important, according to a number of elected officials, especially after the collapse of the Better Together plan. That proposal to create a metro government encompassing the city and county floundered for a variety of reasons — including near unanimous disapproval from African American political leaders.

“We are an entire city,” said Tyus, D-1st Ward. “We ought to make sure everybody’s represented in the city.”

In response to some aldermanic concerns, Krewson offered up new nominees — but that hasn’t broken the deadlock. Stephen Conway, Krewson’s chief of staff, said the ball is in the Board of Aldermen’s court to move on the mayor’s freeholder picks.

“It’s up to President Reed to carry through and have the aldermen vote it up or down,” he said.

Financial hammer

The city of St. Louis could be on the hook to pay for attorneys or staff from the Board of Freeholders - even if its members aren't approved yet.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
The city of St. Louis could be on the hook to pay for attorneys or staff from the Board of Freeholders - even if its members aren't approved yet.

Because St. Louis is violating a timeline to approve freeholders nominees, it’s possible the approved members of the board could hire attorneys to sue the city. The board could also bring in staffers to start work on a plan without city appointees. In either of these scenarios, the city would have to pick up half of the tab.

Reed said he’s been trying to convey that potentially costly reality to all sides of the standoff.

“That is absolutely important to note that. That could be our future. We could be sitting here, have no one seated — but we’re picking up half the tab and decisions are being made,” Reed said. “I am just so thankful that the county has continued to honor my original request to put everything on pause to give me an opportunity to bring everybody together on this issue in the city.”

Reed said he had hoped that would be done before the first of the year. 

“Turns out that the division was much broader than originally expected in terms of people moving off of their entrenched positions to some common ground,” Reed said.

The nine seated members of the board, whom St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and Gov. Mike Parson appointed, haven’t taken any official action since meeting once in 2019. 

And right now, the board can’t entertain any options because they don’t have a quorum after Mark Mantovani resigned to consider a county executive bid. Page is reviewing applicants to replace Mantovani, said spokeswoman Lindsey Vehlewald. She added that any new member would need St. Louis County Council approval. 

“The county Freeholders have held off on meeting, or doing anything else such as hiring, in hopes that the city’s Freeholders are in place quickly,” Vehlewald said. “Mantovani’s absence won’t change that.” 

Conway isn’t sure the Board of Freeholders can actually do anything until the city members are seated.

“You don’t like uncertainty in any process,” Conway said. “And that’s why it’s up to the president and the rest of the aldermen to act in some fashion.”

Joseph Blanner, Gov. Mike Parson’s appointee to the Board of Freeholders, said that once the city gets its act together, the board will have to confer with attorneys about how much time is available to come up with a plan. 

“If we take the position that we don’t have any jurisdiction to act until everyone is seated, then it would only make sense that the clock doesn’t start until everyone is seated,” Blanner said late last year.

All for nothing?

St. Louis County Council Chairman Sam Page declines to answer questions following a special meeting Thursday night.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page is hoping the Board of Freeholders can provoke important policy conversations throughout St. Louis.

Perhaps the biggest lingering question hovering over the standoff is whether making the Board of Freeholders whole really matters that much.

That’s because the board has a relatively poor track record of presenting plans that city and county voters approve. Efforts, for instance, to somehow combine city and county governments have failed over the past few decades. 

And if the timeline to present a plan is constricted, that could present problems to configure a plan to, say, have St. Louis to become a municipality within St. Louis County — similar to Clayton or Florissant. Such a proposal will likely require extensive analysis into whether the move makes financial sense, and whether St. Louis County would take over certain city services.

The board could recommend combining specific services, as was the case in the 1950s when voters approved the creation of the Metropolitan Sewer District. 

Page said last year that the discussion the Board of Freeholders generates could serve as a guide for how to move a divided region forward.

“I think that conversation, an engaged conversation, that residents in the city and the residents in the county participate in, is a much more important process and a much more important event than any product they come up with,” Page said.

For now, though, there is no "product" to consider. Reed said he’s hoping for a resolution soon.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.