Updated at 10:25 p.m. with muncipal league comment.
The region’s municipal officials are working to counter a proposal that would merge St. Louis and St. Louis County through a statewide vote.
It’s the latest pushback against a forthcoming plan from Better Together, which has been studying the possibility of a city-county union for the past few years.
Better Together’s plan is set to be released Monday. It’s expected to merge the governments of St. Louis and St. Louis County and limit the authority of the county’s municipalities. And the backers of the plan say it would need a statewide vote, as opposed to just residents of the city and the county.
On Thursday night members of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis approved a plan to jumpstart what’s been historically known as the Board of Freeholders. That involves the St. Louis mayor, St. Louis County executive and the governor appointing 19 people to come up with a proposal to possibly combine the city and the county.
“This is really the elected officials in St. Louis County doing what they think is right for the residents and voters that they represent,” said Pat Kelly, executive director of the municipal league. “That is to initiate the Board of Freeholders, which is a constitutional process for the residents and voters of St. Louis City and St. Louis County to come together and look at the governmental structure.”
If proponents of this approach gather roughly 19,000 signatures in St. Louis and St. Louis County, the board would have a year to put forward a proposal that would only be voted on by city and county residents. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said going through this process is preferable to Better Together’s approach, primarily because city and county voters could reject a statewide plan — but still have it implemented if the rest of the state approves it.
“This is the way we believe that the constitution intended for St. Louis City and St. Louis County voters to look at the issues pertaining to local governance here and give us the opportunity to make any changes,” Knowles said. “A statewide vote’s not required. And any attempt to do it by a statewide vote, frankly, we believe, is just circumventing the will of the voters here in the region.”
Missouri’s Constitution gives the board the power to “formulate and adopt any other plan for the partial or complete government of all or any part of the city and the county.” Knowles said that the Board of Freeholders could offer up a fairly ambitious proposal. Howard Paperner, who serves as city attorney for several St. Louis County municipalities, co-authored a St. Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed in 1994 saying the Board of Freeholders could propose “almost any plan for any government or fiscal structure for all or any part of the city-county area.”
Paperner said Wednesday that the board is a better venue to discuss important ramifications of a city-county merger — particularly how existing debt will be paid off and how pensions will be addressed.
“I think the voters, residents, taxpayers, the bondholders, the pensioners are all entitled to a real, clear answer to those questions,” Paperner said.
But Chris Pieper, an attorney for Blitz, Bardgett, & Deutsch who has been working with Better Together, said the Board of Freeholders process presents “no authority to address potentially conflicting other constitutional provisions" and “limited authority to address and supersede existing laws.” The upshot, he said, is that the board couldn't propose what Better Together will put forward next week.
“A Board of Freeholders process cannot amend the constitution, and it can’t supersede generally applicable laws,” Pieper said. “And Better Together’s proposal will do both.”
One potential obstacle for the board to be the vehicle to present a city-county merger is how members are selected.
Both St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger have expressed enthusiasm for Better Together’s plan. And both Krewson and Stenger would be responsible for appointing most of the board’s 19 members. It’s unclear how their support for the Better Together plan would affect who they would appoint to the board.
A spokesman for Stenger did not respond to queries from St. Louis Public Radio about the league’s plan. A spokeswoman for Krewson said they didn't have a reaction or comment to the proposal.
Knowles said that launching the board process will show statewide voters that they’re serious about reimagining how the region’s government is structured.
“And so our hope is to push this to a local vote, push this to a local decision, and also make sure that discussions are had locally and transparently,” Knowles said. “Making sure that people are participatory in the process, not to get something done by someone else — and then put upon us.”
Reporter Chad Davis contributed to this article.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum