St. Louis Voters Could Decide On Changing Board Of Aldermen Ward Boundaries
Voters in St. Louis could soon decide whether to change the process for redrawing the ward map for the Board of Aldermen.
Backers of the plan that would transfer power over redistricting from aldermen and the mayor to a nine-person commission submitted signatures to the St. Louis Board of Elections on Monday. The proposal would also require the financial disclosure documents of aldermen to be posted online and bar aldermen from taking votes in which they have a personal or financial interest.
“Today the coalition is turning over 38,000 signatures representing the voices of 38,000 concerned people of the city of St. Louis,” said Yinka Faleti, a supporter of what's known as Proposition R and the 2020 Democratic nominee for Missouri secretary of state.
If the Board of Elections determines there are enough signatures, the proposal could be on the February 2022 ballot.
The first four members of the commission would be selected by an oversight committee consisting of three retired judges, one member of the comptroller’s staff and one member of the city’s Planning and Urban Design Agency. Those four members will be responsible for selecting the other five members.
As of now, members of the Board of Aldermen have until the end of the year to pass a new ward map. The process is expected to be more contentious than usual this time, since the board is shrinking from 28 members to 14. That means at least half of the aldermen will eventually lose their seats.
Proponents of the ballot initiative, such as Kevin McKinney of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations, say that handing power over to a commission will make the historically political process more responsive to the people.
“We’re going to go to 14. And we want the 14 to represent single neighborhoods, not representing a split between the neighborhoods,” McKinney said. “So we’ve got to work to make that happen. And I think this is the best way to make this happen.”
Commissions aren’t necessarily a cure to partisan influence in redistricting. Disagreements have deadlocked many redistricting commissions around the country. And ProPublica reported in 2011 that political operatives manipulated a California redistricting commission into securing favorable maps for the Democratic Party.
But Benjamin Singer, executive director of the group Show Me Integrity, which is backing the plan, said there are measures in place to make sure the nine-person commission is as effective as possible in drawing a map. He noted that the proposed commission is different from bipartisan panels often put in place that rarely come to consensus.
“The criteria they have to follow is also critical, which are keeping neighborhoods and communities together and making St. Louis a national leader in protecting communities of color when it comes to representation at the Board of Aldermen,” Singer said.
Endorsers and detractors
At least two aldermanic supporters of Prop R, Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia of the 6th Ward and Bill Stephens of the 12th, were on hand Monday before the signatures were turned in.
Ingrassia said the measure is part and parcel with a movement of residents “who want to do something different.”
“This is the next best step to change the charter so that politicians and city government officials understand what the people want — and the power goes back to the people,” Ingrassia said.
The proposition also has its share of detractors, including Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. He said the charter already has language aimed at eradicating conflicts of interest among elected officials, including the board.
He also criticized some of the requirements to be on the commission, including that a member must have voted in a municipal election within five years.
“What you end up doing is disenfranchising a large portion of our public,” Reed said. “People who have had felonies ... or people who do not actively engage in our electoral system, but they have an opinion about what’s happening within their community. All of those sorts of people, you end up shuffling them to the wayside just by the nature of the way this thing is set up.”
Reed also said there’s more to redistricting than neighborhood boundaries. The proposition requires wards to support the “geographic integrity of any local neighborhood or local community of interest.”
“You can go from one block in the city of St. Louis to another block in the city of St. Louis and have not only vastly different populations, but requirements and demands in terms of services that need to be delivered,” Reed said. “There’s just a whole host of things that go into that final map. And I think it’s shortsighted to set up a means to create a firewall between the people who are most equipped to deal with it.”
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd of the 22nd Ward also doesn’t like that the proposal would effectively nullify whatever map aldermen agree to in the coming weeks. According to the city charter, the redistricting process needs to be complete by Dec. 31. Proposition R would create an entirely new timeline that would stretch into 2022.
“If the Board of Aldermen does a redistricting map and we pass it, why the hell should somebody else come in and say, ‘We don’t like what you did and therefore we’re asking a commission to do it?’” Boyd said. “To me that’s pure arrogance, and that’s why I can’t stand the progressive party of the Democratic Party. Because they’re a bunch of arrogant people.”
Protecting ‘approval voting’
Proposition R also would require a citywide vote to make any changes to a system known as approval voting that St. Louis residents adopted in 2020. That’s a process in which voters pick as many candidates as they want in the March primary and then choose between the top two vote-getters in the April general election.
Reed said some of the same people who helped pass the measure known as Proposition D want to also pass Proposition R “to lock St. Louis into an ill-conceived voting process.”
Asked why organizers wanted this provision in Proposition R, especially when it could forestall relatively minor changes to the approval voting system, Singer replied: “The people are in charge, and the aldermen are supposed to answer to the people.”
“And if the aldermen want to change what the people wanted when it comes to how we elect our public officials, then they should consult with their constituents,” Singer said.
February elections in even-numbered years are typically low-turnout affairs. Singer said supporters of Proposition R are going to do “as much as we can to ensure high turnout as possible.”
“We want to make sure that we at least give people a voice,” Singer said.
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