At the beginning of 2019, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger was in a tough political spot.
The Democratic official was sworn in to a second term with no reliable allies on the St. Louis County Council. And county voters recently amended the charter to substantially reduce his power over the budget.
But if statewide voters agree to a plan laid out by Better Together next year, Stenger would be in line to become the first metro mayor — a position that gives him sizable policy power over the region.
Better Together’s decision to place Stenger in that position is both consequential and controversial for his political foes. Backers of the merger plan contend it makes sense to have existing elected officials preside over a complicated transition.
“I think it’s a prudent step that we have to form this interim sort of government in order to succeed in the long term,” said St. Louis Alderman Tom Oldenburg, a 16th Ward Democrat who is enthused with Better Together’s plan.
Even some people open to Better Together’s proposal are leery of giving that responsibility to Stenger, who has had a tempestuous relationship with St. Louis County Council members over the past couple of years. Other merger skeptics don’t like how three St. Louis County officials will initially serve as metro mayor, assessor and prosecutor when city residents never voted for them.
Under Better Together’s proposal, Stenger becomes the metro mayor after 2021. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson will become the “transition mayor” that would help Stenger make key decisions on how to bring St. Louis and St. Louis County together.
Stenger, St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell would serve as metro mayor, assessor and prosecutor until early 2025. All three of those officials’ current terms expire in early 2023. Better Together officials said they kept it this way because they didn’t want legislative and executive branch elections going on at the same time.
“In other cities who have done the very same thing that we’re doing, there is always a transition period,” Stenger said. “And in order to stand up a government and have continuity, that is necessary from a legal perspective.”
In many respects, Stenger would become much more powerful as metro mayor than county executive. The metro mayor would get to appoint people in charge of critical services, and, along with Krewson, help appoint at least one university faculty member to draw the map for a 33-person council. The mayor would have line-item veto power — meaning the officeholder makes the final call over a myriad of key policy decisions.
Will Ross, a member of the Better Together task force that came up with the city-county merger proposal, said his colleagues intentionally designed a metro mayor’s office with a lot of power to avoid some of the pitfalls of the current St. Louis mayor. That office, he said, is significantly weaker, since the comptroller and Board of Aldermen president have a big say over financial matters.
“As a task force, we didn’t want to look at personalities. We wanted to look at structure that gives you the best outcome,” Ross said. “And we took a very objective, evidenced-based, logical way of designing this that gives the mayor the authority to truly affect change with the accountability of responding to a large and democratically elected council of 33 members. We thought that was really a fair process model. We look at the cities that function well. And they have a strong mayoral model.”
He said task force members looked to Louisville, which merged its city and county governments in the early 2000s.
“It makes sense to identify individuals who are elected from the largest governmental entity — in this case in St. Louis, it will be St. Louis County — who could serve as intermediaries until the new metro council is enacted and a metro mayor is elected,” Ross said.
Some merger proponents have contended it’s foolish to dismiss Better Together’s proposal because of political differences with Stenger. But his potential ascension has not been without criticism.
After all, Stenger has been at odds with the St. Louis County Council since early 2017. His adversaries accuse him of being uncommunicative, pointing to how he hasn’t showed up to council meetings in weeks. And he’s also faced scrutiny for months about his influence within the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
“When I saw that, then I really thought they lost their minds,” said Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, a frequent Stenger critic.
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, who has also clashed with Stenger, said he doesn’t like the prospect of giving Stenger more power over more people.
“You’ve effectively created a monarch over the entire region who will — with little oversight, little inhibition or restrictions — do as he or she pleases,” Trakas said. “That’s one of the many problems that I have with the Better Together proposal. But that’s certainly a concern particularly when you look at the prospect of Mr. Stenger being elevated to a regional mayor, for lack of a better way to put it.”
While emphasizing she’s still looking over the Better Together proposal, Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said she’s keeping an open mind — especially since she campaigned last year on closer relations between the city and the county.
“There’s things I like about the proposal so far and things I don’t like,” Clancy said on Tuesday. “There’s a lot to digest. I think consolidation can lead to better accountability and more efficiency. But some elements, like extending the county executive’s term, do give me some pause.”
“So again, is this proposal designed to serve insiders, or is it really designed with the community in mind?” she added. “That’s a question that we all need to ask ourselves moving forward as we evaluate this.”
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation and co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission, said there are bigger problems with the Better Together proposal than just Stenger.
Wilson, a St. Louis resident, said it’s deeply problematic that the first metro mayor, prosecutor and assessor will be county officials that city residents never elected.
“Just on the democratic principle that this could pass and there could be elected leadership that people did not actually elect suggests that we would be operating at least in the transitional period under apartheid conditions,” Wilson said. “That a plurality black city that would still be a municipal corporation will be operating with governance that it did not elect, never had an opportunity to elect and does not reflect it demographically or politically. That is the definition of apartheid.”
Wilson emphasized that’s not meant to be a critique of Stenger, Zimmerman or Bell. But, he said, rather “of the process that suggests that … those should be the leaders of the 300,000 people in the city who never get to elect them.”
“The reaction from conversation with [Better Together’s] staff is simply first and foremost there’s a democracy problem here,” Wilson said. “That a statewide ballot initiative and vote on issues that impact people and citizens like myself who are residents of the city and those who are residents of the county should be in the hands of residents of the city and residents of the county.”
Better Together officials have said their plan requires changing Missouri’s constitution to consolidate municipal courts and police departments — which, in turn, requires a statewide vote.
Ross called Wilson’s comments “incendiary language which just does not lend itself to a rational understanding of how the process was developed.”
He also said some of the criticism of placing county officials in charge has a lot to do with lingering animosity over Stenger’s 2014 Democratic primary victory over then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
“It has nothing to do with Wesley Bell or Zimmerman. It’s all about Stenger. And it’s all personal,” Ross said. “They’re people that I respect. But they’re not looking at the structure; They’re looking at personalities. I think that really does disservice to the process of being objective, recognizing that we’re creating an intermediary structure and recognizing that we’re using a time and tested model.”
St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice says how city residents are represented in a metro government will be a huge part of the Better Together debate. Like Oldenburg, she sees logic in having people already in office be a major part of the transition. But she also understands the pushback about county officials like Stenger gaining most of the power.
“The reasoning outside of the personalities makes sense to me in carrying forward a position like that. Because somebody has to be steering the ship,” said Rice. “Whether or not that should be Steve Stenger, the county voters are much more familiar with that than I am. I don’t know that would be my personal pick. And it would be interesting if we had another election between now and then to see what kind of leader would step forward in that position to carry something forward.”
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