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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

Commentary: Change is coming to St. Louis - finally

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 21, 2012 - St. Louis political institutions have rarely changed since the adoption of the city’s 1914 charter. That charter itself reflected very little of the Progressive reform spirit of the time. A chasm separating the city’s elite — the Big Cinch — from the city’s working population made a significant move away from machine-style politics impossible.

Civil service, which took root in many cities by 1915, did not come to St. Louis until 1941. In that year, the League of Women Voters got a measure put on the ballot that would replace patronage for thousands of city jobs. Newspapers vigorously favored the reform. Many of the ward bosses thought there was no chance of passage. The outcome surprised them.

Eventually civil service led to the decline in the powers of committeemen who had made the patronage appointments and a form of politicized merit came to dominate city hiring. (Those scoring in the top three on civil service exams solicited letters from elected officials and others to strengthen their case for hire.)

In 1941, voters also authorized selection of aldermen by ward. Under the 1914 charter, aldermen had represented wards but had been chosen at large. Although the issue was less divisive than civil service, ward election of aldermen did not have support from most ward bosses.

Under Mayors Joseph Darst and Raymond Tucker, four propositions for structural reform went down to defeat. At least two had strong support from Civic Progress, the latter-day Big Cinch, and from newspapers. The first attempt in 1949 reorganized and renamed departments and extended civil service to 3 county offices.  The second, in 1957, proposed a combination at-large and ward-elected board of aldermen as well as reorganization of executive offices.

The third attempt, sponsored by Al Cervantes, sought metropolitan jurisdictions for city and county. Then, in 1961, reformers sought a borough plan for city and county and the creation of a new jurisdiction.  Ward politicians opposed all the various reforms. The measures had support in the higher income sections of the city but opposition grew as median income fell.

In November 2004, a citizens’ commission came up with four charter amendments that would have changed the county offices and aldermanic wards. The Post-Dispatch and the civic elite supported them; most elected officials and the voters did not. Only one ward, the 28th, containing parts of the Central West End, Skinker DeBaliviere, the city portion of Parkview and south along Forest Park, gave a majority to each measure. Similar to the election results from the 1950s, the lower the median income the lower the support for reform.

Following these defeats, institutional change became a back-burner item. The possibilities for getting city voters to favor revised lines of authority and new structures seemed bleak.

This year, however, was a definite change election. A statewide vote allows the city to control its own police force for the first time since 1861. Interestingly, while the measure garnered 64 percent of the vote statewide, city support came in at 56 percent. Twenty-four wards approved local control. Of the four that did not give the measure a majority, the 1st ward is on the north side; and three — 12, 13, and 20 -- are on the south. Wards along the central corridor approved the measure in the greatest numbers with the 28th leading the way at 76 percent.

Some police officers and their families opposed local control as did a few civil rights advocates who had wanted a civilian review board included. The campaign generally was low key and followed attempts at change in the legislature that were stymied by a couple of legislators from outside the city. 

Interestingly, opponents of local control centered their opposition on the expected politicization of the force by the city’s 28 aldermen. Well, voters also decided on Nov. 6 that the number of aldermen would be halved in 10 years. This ballot proposition arose in the Board of Aldermen, receiving 21 votes there to put it on the ballot. The campaign for the measure was somewhat muted, as was the opposition. Proponents placed an ad on Charter cable TV. Some wards endorsed the measure.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.