Ben DeClue wants to be invited to a very exclusive club.
The Benton Park resident joined more than 100 people who live in St. Louis in trying to join what’s known as the Board of Freeholders. If he makes the cut, DeClue will be part of a 19-person body that could present voters with a plan to end the so-called “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County — or offer nothing at all.
“I think everybody’s interested in a discussion,” said DeClue, a former Crystal City councilman and the current city administrator of Glendale. “The important thing now is to define, ‘Well, look, what are the problems we’re actually trying to solve? And from there: What are some possible solutions that we think the public would be interested in taking a stab at?’”
Since the 1870s, people around St. Louis and St. Louis County have tried without success to end the Great Divorce. The Board of Freeholders is an avenue for cooperation and consolidation, but it’s rarely been successful at doing much of anything.
Still, some are optimistic that the public will buy into the process. Freeholder proponents contend it gives local residents control over their own destiny, as compared to statewide voters in the now-scuttled Better Together plan.
Others are taking a dimmer view of the process ahead, contending there are too many political and financial hurdles to make a city-county merger work. And some believe the failure of Better Together poisoned the well for any large-scale reorganization of city and county government.
“In terms of, ‘Do I think a merger is in our future?’ Probably not,” said St. Louis County Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield. “I think there are way too many deeply invested people in this system that I personally believe is broken. I see a very ‘us-versus-them’ mentality when it comes to the city and the county.”
The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis started gathering signatures to launch the freeholders process soon after the Better Together plan was announced in late January. Originally it was a rival approach to Better Together, which for a time seemed to be barrelling toward the 2020 statewide ballot.
Most of the guidelines for the freeholders process are laid out in the Missouri Constitution. Once the signatures that the Municipal League gathered are verified, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page will appoint nine board members apiece. Gov. Mike Parson will pick the final member. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the St. Louis County Council must approve Krewson's and Page's picks.
Both Krewson and Page emphasized that they plan to select a diverse group of appointees when it comes to race, age, geographic residence and philosophical approaches to a merger. The roughly 70 people who applied to be county appointees include municipal officials, doctors, lawyers and business owners.
St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said if “we get the right people around the table, the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can come up with to move our region forward.”
“I’m open-minded about what this could bring,” Clancy said. “I think it’s possible to both be aware of challenges and also have some optimism. Again, I think it all goes back to who’s going to be part of this table. I don’t envy the task of needing to appoint folks to this, because — like I said — it’s going to be really competitive. And they’ve got a lot of work to get done in a short period of time, too, which I think is why the process from the beginning is very important.”
Pat Kelly, Municipal League executive director, said the people serving on the board should be prepared for passionate feedback from the public.
“People that you pick are going to have to be able to sit there and have people yell at them and scream at them. And a lot of business leaders aren’t able to do that,” Kelly said. “But that’s that public process. And people are very passionate. But it’s taking that information and then ultimately putting those things together and putting a plan together.”
After the St. Louis County Council and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approve the city and county appointees, the board will meet later this year at St. Louis City Hall to begin deliberations. Members will have an array of options, ranging from combining specific services to merging city and county governments. Kelly said he expects a vigorous debate on whether to make St. Louis a municipality within St. Louis County — like, say, Florissant or Moline Acres.
The board will have a year to present a plan to voters. And if city and county residents approve the proposal, it will go into effect. Efforts to pass a city-county merger in the past few decades through the freeholders process failed. But freeholders did successfully propose the Metropolitan Sewer District in the 1950s.
Page said previous city-county merger efforts have collapsed because proponents “tried to do too much.” The incoming board, he said, should try to avoid that mistake.
“And if you pack too much change in one bite, it very quickly becomes something that can’t pass,” Page said. “So my recommendation to them would be to take a small step forward in regional governance that allows us to continue to address the disparities and inequities and inclusion challenges we have in our community.”
Shadow of Better Together
The reemergence of the city-county merger debate isn’t being universally embraced, even by people who were backers of the Better Together proposal.
Among other things, Better Together sought to create a “metro city” that would have authority over economic development, public safety and transportation policy in the city and the county. Backers pulled the proposal earlier this year after it faced a torrent of criticism from detractors who were upset that the plan was being taken to statewide voters. Others balked at initially making former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger the powerful metro mayor — a move that backfired after the Democratic official resigned while facing corruption charges.
Krewson said she’s dismayed by the close proximity between the emergence of the freeholders process and Stenger’s impending incarceration.
“I will tell you this: I think this would not be my favorite time to establish a Board of Freeholders,” Krewson said. “Every day there’s a lot of chaos still caused by the difficulties surrounding the Stenger administration. And you almost can’t pick up the paper or listen to the radio any day and not hear something about that.”
Krewson was a backer of Better Together. But she said that she doesn’t anticipate picking any staff member from that group as a member of the board, adding: “I want fresh ideas here. I want people with open minds here.”
“I think we’d be better off not to do the Board of Freeholders now. But that’s not my choice,” she said. “The Municipal League got the signatures. I now need to follow the law and appoint responsible people to have as best of an outcome as possible. I think the timing of it is poor.”
Others, like St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder, said unless key questions about the financial details of a merger are answered, any proposal will be a difficult sell to voters.
Harder, R-Ballwin, said many backers of bringing in St. Louis as a St. Louis County municipality see that option as an “easy out.” In reality, he said, such an arrangement presents “a whole other group of problems and opportunities.”
“Nobody wants to talk about that,” Harder said, referring to the financial questions behind a merger. “They just want to talk about how we need to come together, we need to merge our stats, we need to have a kumbaya moment. And that’s great. But there’s a lot of things that have to be done. The day-to-day operations of government still need to be performed — and who’s going to pay for that? And nobody seems to have a lot of those answers.”
Questions of equity
More than giving Stenger unprecedented decision-making power over policy and patronage, the other reason cited for Better Together’s demise was universal disapproval among African American political leaders.
Many didn’t like how the plan effectively eliminated the city’s elected government, shutting off a key pipeline for black politicians to move up the political ladder. It also would have created a largely white voting jurisdiction to elect a mayor, assessor and prosecutor for the metro government.
The impending freeholders debate won’t necessarily alleviate concerns about diminished black political power. That’s because bringing in St. Louis as a municipality within St. Louis County would likely eliminate a slew of city offices that African Americans hold — such as treasurer and license collector.
St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler said any merger plan that doesn’t have buy-in from black political leaders and black voters is dead on arrival.
“As long as the result of anything that occurs in the Board of Freeholders results in African Americans have places of power, you’ll see more African Americans be on board with it,” Butler said. “If the result of the Board of Freeholders is that African Americans do not have important political positions, you’ll clearly see a backlash.”
And while the Board of Freeholders will be able to tackle a slew of key municipal issues, it won’t be able to do anything to reorganize or combine city and county schools. St. Louis Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward, said not being able to touch that subject will upset African American parents dissatisfied with struggling schools in the city and county.
“We have seen in the city time and time again that things are pretty racially separated. And a lot of things are racially motivated and racially charged,” Bosley said. “We run from that type of a stigma. But when you look at us statistically, that haunts us and will continue to haunt us until we address it on the front end and not the back end.”
All of these obstacles make St. Louis Alderman Jack Coatar skeptical that the freeholders will present a plan that can pass the city and county.
“This region is ultimately going to have to make some hard decisions. If we’re going to do this as a region and not involve the state, which politically would have made it easier to do if we had a big statewide vote, this is going to be hard to do locally,” said Coatar, D-7th Ward. “And I’m a little skeptical that we’ll get it done.”
DeClue, one of the city’s roughly 100 freeholder aspirants, is more bullish that the board can present something that will pass muster at the polls.
“It would have been very easy for the Municipal League to say, ‘Well, gosh. Better Together fell apart. The feedback we’re getting from people is they’re not interested in any sort of substantive discussion at this time. Let’s move on,’” DeClue said. “And that’s not what happened.”
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