It would be easy to chalk up the delay in seating St. Louis’ Board of Freeholders nominees to dysfunction and gridlock — perhaps showcasing the inability of the city and county to work together.
But that would be an overly simplistic takeaway. In reality, the Board of Aldermen impasse showcases long-standing tensions about how some sort of city-county union would affect municipal services and black political power. And it also spotlights how vagaries in the Missouri Constitution make it difficult to figure out what inaction means.
Here’s a recap of what’s going on: The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis gathered enough signatures to launch the Board of Freeholders earlier this year. St. Louis County and Gov. Mike Parson have appointed 10 of the 19 members. But the St. Louis Board of Aldermen is way past a deadline to ratify Mayor Lyda Krewson’s nine nominees.
Krewson’s selections are currently stuck in the Board of Aldermen’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which typically oversees cooperative agreements between the city and other governments — like Bi-State Development.
A majority of the committee was upset that Krewson didn’t appoint more members who live in north St. Louis. Any proposal to combine municipal services or city and county governments could have a big impact on that largely African American area — and members of the committee want to make sure north city residents are represented.
“It’s about having inclusion in the process,” said Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward. “And we want people who are qualified and understand the plight that north St. Louis is in.”
Krewson submitted four new nominees to the committee, including three from north St. Louis. But that hasn’t satisfied the concerns of some members.
Krewson’s chief of staff, Stephen Conway, noted that the mayor already accommodated the committee’s wishes.
“The aldermen are going to just have to take them out to the floor and vote down the ones they don’t want,” Conway said. “Obviously, we can't continue to play games with them. The mayor went a long distance in an effort to move this forward, and the onus is on the alderman to take action.”
St. Louis is way past a deadline laid out in the Missouri Constitution to approve its nominees. But most people who follow the process do not believe it will cause the Board of Freeholders to vanish.
Part of that stems from the fact that there aren’t any specific consequences in the constitution for what happens when a deadline is missed. And the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in the 1950s that the freeholders process did not have to dissolve because the governor was tardy in appointing his member.
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed has said the delay makes sense, especially after the demise of the Better Together plan. That proposal to create a metro government over the city and county was widely criticized for posing potentially irreparable harm to black political power.
“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,” Reed said earlier this month.
One potential problem is that if the standoff goes on for months, it could shorten the amount of time that the freeholders have to make decisions. But Joseph Blanner, who is Gov. Mike Parson’s lone appointee, said he’s not sure they have any jurisdiction to act until city appointees are seated.
That, he said, could affect the yearlong timeline.
“If we take the position that we don't have any jurisdiction to act until everyone is seated, then it would only make sense that the clock wouldn't start until everyone is seated,” Blanner said. “Once we're all seated, and assuming we will have counsel to assist us, that would be one of the questions that I would ask counsel to offer an opinion on: What is the time frame for our decision-making process?”
The goal behind the Board of Freeholders is to figure out ways to rearrange or change government in St. Louis and St. Louis County. But one of the leaders behind the effort has broached the possibility of moving the process forward without the city.
Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, sent a letter to the board earlier this month suggesting that members hire counsel to “determine how they can move forward without city participation.”
“I think it's up to the Board of Freeholders to get the legal opinion on how they should proceed,” Kelly said. “I think then it could be brought out publicly that the city is violating the constitution and not fulfilling their sworn duty. And then maybe that public pressure would then get them to act.”
Whether the board can move forward without the city is an open question. Still, hiring attorneys to look into that scenario could generate more than just bad publicity for the city. According to the Missouri Constitution, the Board of Freeholders has the authority to make the city and county pay for staff. So if the board really wanted to get the city’s attention, it could hire expensive attorneys to study next steps.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, though, said that St. Louis' board members should be at the table. And he reiterated that the board should hold off on substantive action until the Board of Aldermen approves nine people.
"I would ask the county appointees to the Board of Freeholders to be a little bit patient," Page said. "And let's give St. Louis city a chance to come together on their appointees, because I think they'll get there."
One of the scenarios that Conway has thought through is the Board of Freeholders suing the city for not appointing members on time. No matter what a judge decides, the city would have to foot some of the legal bill.
Blanner said that would likely be a last-case scenario, especially since it could set an acrimonious tone for a process aimed at fostering regional cooperation.
“We want this process to start on the right foot,” Blanner said. “Obviously this is somewhat of a step back from the fact that we can't get all of the appointments made. But putting that aside, starting the process after litigation may put past things in a negative light. My preference would be to hope that the city is able to figure out those last few freeholders.”
One other issue with suing the city? It’s not clear if a win in court would actually force the Board of Aldermen to take a vote on Krewson’s nominees. “This is probably a question for an attorney that looked into this specific issue, but I don't know how you compel an appointment when there's disagreement over who those appointments would be,” Blanner said.
If the Board of Freeholders didn’t hire attorneys, it’s unclear whether a member of the public would be invested enough in seeing that process move forward to spend thousands of dollars on attorneys — especially when filing a lawsuit may not actually do much.
One of the lingering criticisms of any proposal to combine St. Louis and St. Louis County is that it would negatively affect black political power. So making sure that African Americans are strongly represented in a process that could radically change how city and county governance works is more than just an important principle.
“It's like making sausages. Sometimes it is not always pretty, but as long as at the end of the day we get good representation from the city — I think that's the most important thing,” said former alderman Antonio French, one of Krewson’s nominees to the Board of Freeholders.
But the second part of that question is perhaps more vexing. After all, the Board of Freeholders does not have a great track record of presenting plans that meet city and county approval. So getting into the minutiae of who’s on the board may turn out to be a waste of time.
Yet there’s another possibility: The Board of Freeholders engages in robust public input, comes up with ideas that are popular in the city and county, and then gives local voters a chance to dramatically change how services are provided or how governments work for us. In that case, it’s important to focus on who is making those decisions.
Page says he's optimistic the process will be fruitful for the city and county.
"I think anytime we get together as a region and talk about our problems and how we can work together to solve them, that's a positive event," Page said. "Everyone will have expectations of the Board of Freeholders work product, what it might be, what it might look like and what the package might be. My expectations are that we have an engaged conversation with residents in the city and residents in the county. What are our biggest regional challenges, and what are some potential solutions? Whether or not those go to the ballot is a second question."
In any case, the Board of Aldermen isn’t slated to meet again until Dec. 6 — meaning the uncertainty over the city appointees to the Board of Freeholders will linger on through the Thanksgiving holiday.
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