The leaders of St. Louis County’s municipalities are trying to jumpstart a process, known as the Board of Freeholders, to get a St. Louis-St. Louis County merger plan to only city and county voters — an alternative to a proposal from a group known as Better Together that would take that issue statewide.
There’s one problem with that approach: St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson are responsible for appointing most of that board and both are solidly behind the Better Together plan. That gives them little incentive to endorse a process that could produce a competing proposal.
It’s a conundrum of sorts for the Municipal League of St. Louis, a group trying to get roughly 20,000 signatures to prompt Krewson, Stenger and Gov. Mike Parson to appoint the board. Since Krewson and Stenger appoint 18 out of the 19 members, it’s possible their appointees may not put forward any plan — making the Better Together plan the only option before voters next year.
While neither Krewson nor Stenger say they would intentionally take that path, both chief executives panned the municipal league’s move.
“I’m not very enthusiastic about the freeholder concept, because the freeholder concept has never been successful locally,” Stenger said in an interview this week. “And I think it has a number of issues that basically just are frankly there to present obstacles to any plan moving forward. And that’s not what we need. We need change. Frankly, we need to flip the script, and we need a real change in the dynamics in our community if we’re going to be successful.”
"We have to make a change," he added. "And that change is not going to happen through the freeholder process."
During a press availability with reporters on Thursday, Krewson questioned why the freeholders concept was being pushed now — even though the process has been in place for decades.
“There has been the opportunity to do that for years and years and years,” Krewson said. “And I think the only reason it’s being floated now is that they don’t like the plan that is being proposed — and so they’re trying to make a run around that plan.”
Municipal League executive director Pat Kelly said members of group did talk about the possibility of Stenger and Krewson intentionally deadlocking the freeholders process. But he added “just by establishing the public process in an open forum, no matter who the committee is, it’s going to give the opportunity for the residents of St. Louis city and county to have a voice in this decision-making process.”
As for Stenger and Krewson’s comments, Kelly said: “I think it just goes to show almost to be derelict in duty or certainly a lack of leadership on their part to disregard the residents of St. Louis city and county.”
Advise and consent
Stenger pointed out that Missouri Constitution stipulates that any appointee to the board needs to get approval from the St. Louis County Council and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
“So you have sort of a check and a balance there as well,” he said. So if I were to appoint someone who would be of my mindset … they’re free to question that person and ask that person if they should serve.”
At least two members of the St. Louis County Council said the city and county’s legislative role in approving potential board members was important.
“What it does do, is it takes this decision out of the people in Joplin and Springfield and Houston, Missouri, and bring it back home where it belongs — which is in the county and the city of this region in St. Louis,” said Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin. “So that’s the whole focus and the big focus of this.”
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, said the council has already scrutinized Stenger’s appointees to other county boards and commissions — and added they would take the same approach if the municipal league gets enough signatures.
“So in that context, I believe there’s every chance that whoever does make it on the Board of Freeholders would be a person who cannot be and will not be controlled by any one person or entity,” Trakas said.
During a council meeting late last month, Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, asked Kelly “why the Board of Freeholder process wasn’t more explored by the Municipal League prior to a week ago.” Kelly responded that he got the idea to jumpstart the freeholders’ process while writing a letter to the editor.
After that meeting, Clancy told reporters “it seems to me like that may just an effort to stop Better Together, but not as much about being proactive in making some other recommendations about how to bring changes to our region.”
“If they come up with some work product, I’ll give them my serious consideration, too,” added Clancy.
St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann contributed information to this story.
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