Members of a board that could recommend big changes to St. Louis and St. Louis County government met for the first time Tuesday, expressing optimism that they can present a plan that city and county residents will accept.
With city members of the Board of Freeholders still unseated, the board spent most of Tuesday’s meeting getting to know each other — and hearing from members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Ten of the possible 19 members of the board convened in the Board of Aldermen’s chambers Tuesday. They consisted of nine appointees from St. Louis County and one named by Gov. Mike Parson. Aldermen haven't approved St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s nine nominees. And because of the city appointees’ absence, board members decided against taking any significant action Tuesday.
The board has wide latitude to present voters with a plan consolidating services in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Members could also come up with a proposal combining aspects of city and county government, such as making St. Louis a municipality within St. Louis County.
Past efforts to dramatically overhaul city and county government through the freeholder process have faltered, although the Metropolitan Sewer District was created in the 1950s. Still, many members on Tuesday contended that the process could be fruitful — especially when the board is whole.
“There’s a saying that relationships move at the speed of trust,” said county appointee Dee Joyner. “And I think the corollary is trust moves at the speed of relationships. And the more that we can spend time as we get started getting to know each other and trusting each other, the more we’re going to be able to move through this process. Because it is going to be a difficult one. And we know there’s going to be a lot of different opinions and a lot of different ideas.”
The freeholders process, backed by the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, begins soon after the failure of Better Together, which would have created a metro government overseeing the city and county. Among other objections, critics contended it would hurt African American political power.
County appointee Fred Searcy said his colleagues should start gathering input in predominantly African American portions of the city and county.
“The people in the northern part of the city and county believe they are forgotten,” said Searcy, who is African American and lives in unincorporated north St. Louis County. “And so we have to show them you mean just as much to us as a person that lives in the well-to-do areas like Ladue, Chesterfield or Frontenac.”
Joseph Blanner, who as Parson’s appointee was required to live outside the city and county, said he’s been studying previous freeholder efforts for the past few years. The Jefferson County attorney said he realizes that what happens in St. Louis and St. Louis County “has a profound impact on the entire region — inclusive of the outlying counties.”
“I care about the future of my four children,” Blanner said. “And I hope they can stay here and be prosperous along with all of your children. And I don’t believe that’s going to happen if we don’t move forward.”
Much of the meeting featured comments from St. Louis aldermen, who had varying degrees of bullishness about the process ahead.
Several African American aldermen, including Sharon Tyus, alluded to concerns that any push to have the city become a municipality within the county could lead to a number of black citywide elected officials losing their jobs.
“What I hear in my community is that there is this great push to merge the city with the county because they want to get rid of black elected officials,” said Tyus, D-1st Ward. “And so, they are adamantly opposed to it.”
Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard didn’t dispute that the city and county needed to “streamline some things.” But the 5th Ward Democrat added if any plan will take away black representation “in a state that has a deep rooted history of doing things that disproportionately impacts African Americans and people of color, then that’s a problem.”
“I believe if it’s structured right, it can happen,” Hubbard said.
Alderwoman Annie Rice, D-8th Ward, said board members should spend as much time as possible gathering input from ordinary citizens, as opposed to elected officials. She added that there should be an emphasis on getting public testimony from younger people who would be most affected by any plan presented to voters.
“I would encourage you to do a whole lot less of this, listening to us, and going out and actually listening to the people,” Rice said.
Rice pointed to the Ferguson Commission, which was formed in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death.
“They held a public meeting after public meeting. They took a beating,” Rice said. “Sometimes you have to have loud and rowdy meetings where people are yelling and they are getting their feelings out. Because there’s a lot pent up in our region, and people want to be heard.”
Moving past the impasse?
Meanwhile, St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed said he was hopeful that there could be an end in the delay in getting Krewson’s nominees confirmed.
“I certainly hope that we can get to a resolution this week,” Reed said. “What the committee members have been stressing to the mayor is the importance of having representation from throughout the city of St. Louis — particularly in some of their neighborhoods and communities north of Delmar that have been cut out of the picture for far too long.”
Krewson said she was meeting with Reed on Tuesday about the freeholders issue. She said “it’s never been take it or leave it” about her nominees.
“It’s not embarrassing for me. But I do think that it doesn’t reflect well on the city that we can’t get the Board of Aldermen to take a vote on these nominees,” Krewson said.
Krewson had a dim view of the freeholders process earlier this year, contending the timing was “poor” so close to the demise of Better Together and revelations of former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s corruption.
On Tuesday, she noted that the freeholders process was propelled by the municipal league — which consists of municipalities from St. Louis County that have expressed opposition to major consolidation efforts like the Better Together plan.
“Now this Board of Freeholders process, it is possible that something good will come out of this,” Krewson said. “And I’m certainly hopeful for that. The members that I nominated, as well as the members that are here from St. Louis County and the governor, are all very good folks who I’m sure are going to try to make something good come out of this.”
Board members will have a year to send a plan to voters or recommend no changes.
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