(Updated 1:30 p.m. on Friday)
Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar says bringing local governments can strengthen the health – and brighten the future -- of urban communities.
The Indiana Republican was the keynote speaker for a St. Louis University Law School symposium on merging St. Louis and St. Louis County. He was a key figure in banding together city of Indianapolis with Marion County in the 1970s.
Lugar says merging the two governments had skeptics. But he says it attracted jobs, sports teams and tourists – and reinvigorated civic life.
“One of the ways to be competitive right now is to have a very strong urban fabric, a very strong local government that is able to be attractive to jobs, inventions and sports teams and tourists, but likewise also invigorates life itself,” Lugar said.
The symposium on merging St. Louis and St. Louis County may not resolve a debate that’s raged on since 1876. But SLU law professor Anders Walker says he hopes Friday’s event at the law school’s downtown headquarters stokes conversation about a topic that’s gained plenty of attention in recent months.
“I doubt that the conference is going to come up with answers. But there does appear to be growing support both the city and in the county for a merger,” Walker said. “I think that the possibility of actually getting this on the table as a policy project could happen.”
Walker is one of numerous panelists participating in the day-long conference, called United We Stand, Divided We Fall: The Reunification of St. Louis City and County, which explores the impact a merger could have on public safety, governmental organization and urbanization.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley spoke at the symposium. And Walker says Lugar's presence likely brought more interests to the event.
“One thing that Sen. Lugar will bring is some attention. And I think that’s already happened,” Walker said. “His presence will lend an insider’s presence on what happened in Indianapolis.”
The afternoon panels featured political leaders such as St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, business leaders like St. Louis Regional Chamber CEO Joe Reagan and public safety officials like St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. Walker says the conference features speakers skeptical of a merger, such as University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Terry Jones.
“We’re hoping those panels will get into the nitty-gritty details on what the merger would entail,” Walker said.
The issue of bringing together the city and the county has been a source of contention since the two jurisdictions split in 1876. Several efforts to reunite the city and the county have faltered over the years, most recently in 1962.
Still, the topic remains a hot one on the local political scene. Late last year, a group called Better Together formed to examine the potential of a city-county reunion. Dave Leopolitz – the group’s community-based study director -- will be on one of the conference’s panels.
Some – such as Slay – have advocated having the city join the county as a municipality. Others – such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Page – have broached the possibility have the city and county effectively be a giant municipality known as “St. Louis.”
Even after the question of governmental jurisdiction is answered, other questions remain. That includes whether voters across the state or only voters in the city and county should decide the merger proposal. There are also concerns about a merger’s impact on the city’s earning tax; the composition of the St. Louis County Council; and whether current municipalities would want to be a part of a consolidated “St. Louis.”
And then there are the political calculations: Some Republicans in the county have already started to organize against any sort of merger proposal. At the same time, some African-American political leaders in the city may oppose the move, because they fear their political clout may be diluted in St. Louis County.
Walker said the “policy and politics” of such a merger “are inseparable.” He hopes that the audience gives their take – both pro and con – on the possibility.
“I think a merger has got be a win-win. It’s got to be something that makes sense for the county and it’s got to be something that makes sense for the city,” Walker said. “On the surface, I think there are some reasons for considering a merger. Not really a particular kind of merger, but just considering the region’s national reputation.
“When most people think about St. Louis, they think of the city of St. Louis,” he added. "Even if they live in the county – let’s say they live in Kirkwood or Webster Groves – most people are probably going to associate you with the city of St. Louis.”
Walker said 290 people signed up for the event. That, he said, shows that people around the region are interested in the topic.
“In planning the event, we wanted to do something of interest and relevance to the local community, underscoring SLU’s commitment to the city and region of St. Louis,” Walker said. “And we thought the city-county merger would be something that would draw attention, bring people down to see our new facility and be of interest.”