Before Monday, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger was slated to become the first “metro mayor” under a plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County — giving the Democratic official enormous power over the direction and decision making of a united region.
But after Better Together submitted a new petition to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office, Stenger won’t automatically get that post. One of the leaders of the city-county effort said the move is in response to criticism of having county officials being the initial leaders of the government — and not a federal subpoena of Stenger’s administration.
“I don’t think it goes to the individual,” said Better Together Executive Director Nancy Rice. “I think it goes to people wanting to vote earlier rather than later. So that’s what we’re doing.”
Detractors of the merger plan, though, are skeptical — given that changes were reported just hours after news of the Stenger subpoena became public. And others don’t feel the changes get at the heart of the issues with the Better Together proposal, including its impact on black political power and how statewide voters will decide whether a new government comes to city and county residents.
“If it is the case that Better Together is saying today that they have changed the proposal and made it better because they have heard from the community, then perhaps they should consider what they might construct with the community from this day forward,” said Deaconess Foundation CEO Starsky Wilson.
The big changes
Under Better Together’s original proposal, Stenger would have become the first metro mayor starting in early 2021. He would have served in that role through 2025. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, whose term ends in 2021, would have served as the transition mayor until the end of 2022 making key decisions about the new government.
The group’s new petition, which was submitted to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Monday, would have whoever is county executive and mayor jointly administer the new government. And in 2022, voters in the city and county would elect a metro mayor.
Better Together’s revised plan would also have residents elect a prosecutor and assessor in 2022. Assuming they're still in office on Jan. 1, 2021, St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman and Prosecutor Wesley Bell would still serve as the metro assessor and prosecutor during the two-year transition.
Rice said the decision to make Stenger the metro mayor, and let him serve in that role two years beyond his term as county executive, elicited widespread criticism — even from people who are philosophically open-minded to a city-county union. While Better Together officials had designated the county executive as metro mayor to maintain stability, Rice acknowledged the idea wasn’t popular among city and county residents.
“I think we probably in the development of it, we were too nerdy. I think we over thought this,” Rice said. “But we are respecting the wisdom of the crowd. And we have heard about this.”
Another major change in the proposal is that whoever is county executive and mayor on January 1, 2021, would serve as transition mayors for the new government. Originally, that date was January 1, 2019 — meaning that Stenger and Krewson could have led the new government even if they were no longer in office.
So if either Stenger or Krewson leave before the merger goes into effect, their replacements would serve as transition mayors.
“And those two things taken together, the most cynical people thought it was some kind of comfort structure for an individual — in this case Stenger,” Rice said. “That wasn’t the case. It really was us being nerds about trying to ensure belt and suspenders on stability. The public told us loud and clear that’s not what we wanted. So we changed it. It’s really that simple.”
Some merger antagonists have questioned why the changes were announced the same day as a subpoena seeking documents from Stenger and his staff. Rice said: “I would just tell you that we’re not that good.”
“I mean, I heard this news when you did,” she said. “We’ve been working on this for days, more than a week.”
She also emphasized that Better Together employees who have spouses that work for Stenger did not hear about the news before Sunday.
Stenger’s only comment so far has been a brief statement Monday that said he will fully comply with the subpoena.
Rice said one of the numerous things that made her think about changing the merger proposal was Wilson’s comments to St. Louis Public Radio in January.
Wilson, the co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission, listed a number of misgivings about the city-county merger plan — including its impact on black political power and its lack of action on consolidating schools. He also said he was troubled by how Stenger, Zimmerman and Bell would lead the new government even though city voters never elected them — which he compared to apartheid.
In an interview on Monday, Wilson said Better Together’s changes don’t mollify all of his concerns — especially that statewide voters, and not just local ones, are voting on the plan. That’s been a major point of opposition from merger opponents from across the political spectrum.
“I always appreciate when community voice is taken into consideration when we’re talking about public policy. And I recognize that the political calculus here related to Steve Stenger is as much, if not more, of an influence than community feedback,” Wilson said. “I’d say it’s important to remember our assessment initially about the anti-democratic nature of the proposal is still in the proposal. To remove the extended term of the county executive is not to restore the franchise to the city’s citizens to give them the opportunity to vote and to retain status as a municipal entity.”
He also said a better way forward would have been for St. Louis to join St. Louis County as a municipality. Under Better Together’s plan, St. Louis would become a municipal corporation with no mayor or Board of Aldermen.
Not only would that have allowed city residents to elect a local government, but it would preserve a voting jurisdictions where African-American candidates have a good chance of winning, he said.
For Wilson, the combination of statewide voters deciding on the merger plan and county residents getting to keep their “municipal identity” creates what he calls a “hierarchy of human value” where the largely-African American city of St. Louis is considered a lower priority.
Asked about Wilson’s contention that St. Louis should get to elect their own local leadership, Rice replied: “I respect his opinion. And I think it goes in the category of ‘change is hard.’” She added that the change is necessary to accomplish certain parts of the plan, including consolidating police departments.
“Because in Missouri, if you’re a city and have 400 people, you have to put a police department in them. It’s the law,” Rice said. “So I’m a city person. I’m older than Starsky. So that makes me a city person longer than him. I love the city. And I am confident that I will still love the city — and it will be a great place with a modern government.”
Because Better Together is re-submitting its proposal, it presents a roughly 60-day delay to when the group can gather signatures.
Rice said that’s significant, since Better Together must finish gathering the signatures by May 2020.
“And that means we get into the field in December instead of October. In Missouri, that’s a big damn difference — right? Those signatures are due in May. So this has got to be the last time, it really does,” Rice said. “I wanted to be out at Labor Day picnics. But good public policy prevails and so we’ll scramble on the signatures.”
If Better Together gets enough signatures in six out of eight congressional districts, then statewide voters will decide on the measure likely in November 2020.
Wilson isn’t sure the new plan will help it pass. But he did add that it may alleviate concerns of “some people for whom Stenger was the primary problem.”
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