When proponents of a city-county merger rolled out their long-awaited proposal in January, they thought they had everything in place for success.
They had more than five years of research, key political support and potential money from key donors like Rex Sinquefield to promote the plan to a statewide audience.
But things changed dramatically on Monday when the effort’s leader, Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, acknowledged there would be no statewide bid to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County. It was a culmination of a frenetic period that saw the arrival of a multiracial, bipartisan opposition coalition to the merger — and immense criticism of some of the plan’s components.
As fans and foes of the Better Together proposal take stock of what went wrong, both sides don’t believe the city-county merger debate is over. But in taking the statewide option off the table, merger proponents may face a tougher road to implementing their vision of a united government given past election results.
“With respect to moving forward and whether a local vote for a plan, whether it’s viable or not, I’m hopeful,” said Arindam Kar, a member of Better Together’s task force. “What I don’t want to happen is, with the petition being pulled, that the discussion and the conversations people are having fall by the wayside.”
So why did the Better Together statewide proposal falter? Here are a few lessons about what happened — and whether a new plan could emerge in the future.
Some of the key people involved in the Better Together process had expressed a preference for a merger plan to be decided locally. In fact, then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay made an explicit promise in 2013 that nothing would happen on the issue without city or county buy-in.
Flash forward a little more than five years, and the plans shifted. Better Together’s organizers contended they needed to take the proposal to statewide voters in order to consolidate municipal courts and police departments. Yet that rationale did not answer the more emotional concern about how a merger plan could go into effect even if city and county voters rejected the plan.
For some state lawmakers, including GOP Rep. Dean Plocher, taking the proposal statewide effectively poisoned the well — and became a central issue of the entire merger debate.
“I think it’s up to St. Louis city and county whether they should merge or not, not the state as a whole,” said Plocher, R-Des Peres.
Clearly a lot of people agreed with Plocher’s perspective. When his amendment to require local approval for a merger came up for a vote in the Missouri House last week, 143 lawmakers voted for it — a rare display of bipartisanship on a major issue in a General Assembly renowned for factionalism.
St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler said that political support from the black community was crucial to getting the Better Together plan off the ground. And he said in January he wasn’t sure if that was the case.
“And I don’t believe the African American community is ready power-wise or politically wise for a city-county merger,” Butler said.
Butler’s words proved to be prophetic, as Better Together’s plan sparked near-unanimous opposition from state and municipal-based African American officials. Many didn’t buy that the plan would help their political stock, especially since it would create a majority white voting jurisdiction to elect a mayor, prosecutor and assessor for 1.3 million people. And efforts to bring the St. Louis County NAACP into the fold elicited a ferocious backlash, especially when it was revealed that the group’s president was on the campaign payroll.
Kar said he wasn’t surprised by this development, as many municipal officials expressed skepticism about a merger when the task force was holding town halls before the January rollout. He said some of his colleagues talked to black leaders in Indianapolis and Louisville, two cities that went through their own mergers.
“So when there was significant opposition and very strong opposition, I think that did, at least for us, say ‘Well, we need to have further conversation here,’” Kar said. “There’s a lot of pain. There’s a lot of distrust here. And we need to do more to bridge that gap and bring them in to help us build a model that would work for them.”
One of the more divisive aspects of the merger proposal, at least initially, was making then-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger the first metro mayor until the beginning of 2025 — two years after his elected term expired.
Stenger was a controversial figure before his legal woes became pronounced. He made enemies on both sides of the political spectrum, with his foes contending he was vindictive and confrontational. Better Together had to alter its proposal once a subpoena of St. Louis County became public.
Wrighton acknowledged Stenger’s eventual guilty plea on federal corruption charges was a factor in the pullout, adding that it “shook the confidence of the community — many of whom were supporting this effort.”
Some politically minded activists in St. Louis saw a deeper issue: They didn’t like how the first mayor, prosecutor and assessor would be from St. Louis County, meaning that more than 300,000 people would have leadership they never elected.
Kar said the task force members knew of some these difficulties while formulating the plan.
“But at the end of the day, we were left with, 'He is the person,' or at least that was the office. He had the highest number of votes in terms of an elected official,” Kar said. “And so, that’s sort of where we were at in terms of, ‘Well, if we’re going to have to have someone who is going to help lead that transition piece, it would probably have to be the St. Louis County Executive.’”
In some respects, getting someone like state Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal behind the Better Together plan should have been a slam dunk. The University City Democrat has proposed for years to make St. Louis a municipality within St. Louis County — and believes that a merger would ultimately be better for the region.
But Chappelle-Nadal was an ardent opponent of the Better Together plan, contending, among other things, that proponents didn’t do enough legwork to showcase how the plan would be financially viable.
“It doesn’t mean that you scribble on a piece of paper and then that becomes your initiative petition,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “That’s what they did. They scribbled on a piece of paper not thinking about what democracy is supposed to look like.”
Some other local officials philosophically favorable to a merger, such as state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, or St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice, also expressed misgivings about Better Together’s plan. And the fact those officials weren’t on board probably was a warning sign that the opposition to the plan was deep.
Merideth said last month the merger rollout showcased how leadership “feel like it’s better to achieve the objective that they want with or without the support of the people.”
“I think we saw this with the stadium debacle a few years ago where they tried to bypass a citywide vote on this. And the city had clearly demanded it. Because they believed it was good for the city,” Merideth said. “And that meant that they didn’t do the work of real leadership of building support and building energy so that it was a project that the city was excited about — and the folks that they represent could be excited about.”
Proponents of the Better Together plan, like Wrighton, say their focus now is try to implement a plan voted on locally — which could include launching what is historically known as the Board of Freeholders. Groups like the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis were advocating for that route, since the members of that public group could put forth a merger plan that city and county residents decide.
Kar, though, is worried momentum to spark a freeholders process may slow down now that the statewide Better Together plan isn’t looming in the background.
“We do need something that is a radical and a systems change to really get to the core issues that we were trying to aspire to or address,” Kar said. “And so, if there’s a way to accomplish those through a local vote, I would be all for it. … But I just don’t want to see something that doesn’t address those core issues or people completely backing away and going back to the status quo.”
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