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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.

City-County Cooperation On The Mind Of St. Louis Mayoral Contenders — And The Region’s Residents

For many out-of-state visitors driving to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch is their first glimpse of Missouri.
File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
The two candidates for St. Louis mayor are making St. Louis-St. Louis County cooperation a priority if they're elected on April 6.

You could say that Reggie Jones has a front-row seat to the disunity between St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Jones is the mayor of Dellwood and served on the East-West Gateway board, which often makes big financial decisions on projects for the St. Louis region. He said he’s observed that St. Louis and St. Louis County have markedly different priorities, even though the two jurisdictions’ economies and challenges are so inextricably linked.

With a new St. Louis mayor set to take office after the April 6 election, Jones is hoping for a fresh start between the city and the county.

“There’s room for the city and county to work together for the betterment of the region,” Jones said. “I think that’s something that needs to happen. You know, it’s happened in the past. But it’s time now, particularly everything going on with crime and things of that sort, there needs to be some sort of collaboration.”

Both Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderwoman Cara Spencer, the two candidates in the mayor’s race, say they have built the relationships and have the experience to chart a more collaborative course for the city and county.

Tishaura Jones (left) and Cara Spencer address reporters on Primary Election Day, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. They will face off in a runoff election for St. Louis Mayor on April 6.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Tishaura Jones (left) and Cara Spencer address reporters last month. The candidates will face off in a runoff election for St. Louis mayor on April 6.

A desire for cooperation

In some respects, Jones and Spencer have taken similar approaches when it’s come to major flashpoints for city-county cooperation.

Both candidates opposed an unsuccessful bid to build an NFL stadium on the city’s riverfront, which became the city’s financial responsibility after the county chose not to participate. They also opposed the Better Together proposal to have an all-powerful metro government make decisions for the city and the county.

And the two candidates opposed a bid to bring a private operator to St. Louis Lambert International Airport. While the airport is owned by the city, St. Louis County leaders were rankled they didn’t have much say over a proposal that could dramatically impact a valuable piece of property that’s located in the county.

Spencer said her main goal is to get St. Louis to grow again after years of population decline. She said the failure of the so-called airport privatization push shows the perils of trying to embark on a major initiative alone without county input.

“If elected mayor, I have a relentless commitment to working with our regional leaders,” Spencer said. “And as such, I joined the St. Louis Municipal League. I’m on the executive board. They represent the largest muni, St. Louis City. The first representative in 100 years out there to help build those relationships.”

Jones snagged the endorsements of both St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and County Prosecutor Wesley Bell. She said she hopes to use a process known as the Board of Freeholders, which brings in representatives from the city, county and state to forge deeper collaborations tackling crime and health disparities.

“What broader regional cooperation looks like, especially between St. Louis and St. Louis County, is making sure that we are in sync when it comes to issues that affect St. Louis and St. Louis County,” Jones said.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page votes early Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 at First Church of Christ, Scientist in Creve Coeur. He defeated Republican challenger Paul Berry to retain his seat as county executive.
File photo | David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page endorsed Jones to be the next mayor. Some of his critics believe his perilous political position makes deep collaboration more difficult.

The mayor and the executive

During a recent news conference, Page expressed a willingness to work with whoever becomes the next mayor on issues of common concern.

“We saw over the past few months success that we can have with a limited pilot project in north county and north city with intense, high-level daily communication with the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis City Police Department,” Page said. “And that had a real and significant impact on violent crime in those high-resourced areas. And we’ll continue our coordination, communication and cooperation on public safety.”

Jones and Spencer won’t be able to act unilaterally either, as both St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green will have a say on any regional initiative that costs the city a significant amount of money. They’ll also have to get buy-in from a St. Louis Board of Aldermen that may have different ideas about what constitutes regional collaboration.

Yet there are area residents who feel that the two executive leaders can forge more cohesive bonds. Seema Dahlheimer, who lives in St. Louis’ Benton Park neighborhood, said she would like the next mayor and Page to be more in sync in terms of COVID-19 restrictions. She observed the city and county had substantially different regulations over the past year when it came to parks, restaurants, bars and the age of children who needed to be masked in public.

“I feel that St. Louis and St. Louis County are kind of the core of St. Louis,” she said. “And when we can’t be in sync on those things, it just seems wild.”

One of the challenges for either Jones or Spencer will be that Page is facing his own political difficulties. He no longer has a majority coalition on the St. Louis County Council, so any major plan will have to also find favor with council members he hasn’t seen eye-to-eye with in recent months.

“He is so divisive on so many fronts,” said David Jackson, one of a number of candidates running for the St. Louis Board of Education. “He won’t be able to get anything done in St. Louis County. And so, I think the city and county talking about combining any services is a moot issue right now because St. Louis County is not going to give Sam Page any support with any of his initiatives.”

Page said as his administration continues to ease COVID-19 restrictions and the county moves out of the pandemic, he believes “we’ll continue to work together on the areas of agreement in St. Louis County, and that’s economic development, infrastructure, roads and public safety.”

Differences on what collaboration means

Collaboration between St. Louis and St. Louis County means greatly different things depending on whom you ask. Ferguson resident Joe Bruemmer, for instance, would like to see St. Louis and St. Louis County merge into one government that serves all of the city and county residents.

“I know it’s not popular, but it really doesn’t make any sense,” said Bruemmer, referring to the current setup between the city and the county. “If you have one mayor, one government, one Board of Aldermen, however big it may be, it takes away a lot of the red lines and a lot of the redundancies that we spend money on all across the county.”

Efforts to somehow combine St. Louis and St. Louis County government have failed miserably over the past few decades, most recently with the Better Together plan in 2019. Any major changes either proposed by the Board of Freeholders or elsewhere would need the approval of St. Louis and St. Louis County voters.

That’s why people like Chesterfield resident Sue Katz Bussman would like to see more gradual changes to city-county cooperation, such as more conscious efforts to attract tourism to the region.

“It facilitates it on paper of course,” said Bussman, referring to a combination of city and county governments. “But I’m not sure that there would be a whole lot of benefit to that.”

The difficulty in actually pulling off wholescale consolidation between the city and county is why downtown St. Louis resident Craig Riggins would like to see the entities focus on areas of mutual concern — such as fighting crime together. County police, he said, could perhaps have a more permanent collaboration in fighting crime close to the two jurisdictions’ borders.

“This is St. Louis. You can’t drop futuristic, large projects on the people,” Riggins said. “We have to do it in baby steps. Let’s start with law enforcement.”

One thing to look out for in the next few years is the impact of more than $700 million going to St. Louis and St. Louis County from the latest federal COVID-19 relief bill. That could allow city and county leaders to deal with longstanding issues around homelessness, housing, crime and infrastructure, which could put the two jurisdictions on a more solid footing for tangible collaboration.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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

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