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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: St. Louis regionalism - yes; consolidation - probably not

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2009 - In case Mayor Francis Slay's inaugural remarks about the City of St. Louis re-entering St. Louis County after more than 130 years apart are more than symbolic, here is some advice for those seeking to restructure local governments within the region.

Don't Overreach

Each of the four major attempts either to reunite the city and county or to form an overarching multi-purpose governmental layer has failed miserably. One of the main reasons is that the reform efforts went several steps too far. As they deliberated, the drafters become enraptured with reform and abandoned the most important principle: nothing will happen unless the eligible electorate approves it.

They began their discussions stressing political feasibility but, along the way, they convinced themselves that now is the time to be bold. Voters did not take the same lengthy journey; so, come decision time, they embraced the certainty of things as they were over things as someone else thought they should be.

The 1926 Board of Freeholders' plan was a complete city takeover, abolishing all units of government in the county. Not surprisingly, county voters firmly rejected the proposal.

In 1930, city commercial interests then took a statewide approach, championing a constitutional amendment creating a "Greater St. Louis" government to assume responsibility for and ownership of functions like water, sewers and parks. It lost badly throughout most of the state, including the county.

By a one-vote margin, the 1958-59 Board of Freeholders proposed another city-county district for selected services (arterial roads, public transit regulation, sewers, economic development, civil defense, law enforcement training and laboratory facilities). That plan was shot down, supported by only 33 percent of city voters and 25 percent of the county electorate. The minority who had wanted a complete city-county consolidation continued to meet.

They used the initiative process to place their "Borough Plan" (think New York City) on the November 1962 ballot as a constitutional amendment. It failed statewide (26 percent yes), in the city (45 percent yes), and in the county (21 percent yes).

Think Evolution

The fact that voters rejected these revolutionary plans does not mean that they and their elected officials are not willing to become more regional. They just want to do it one issue at a time. Incremental mistakes are easier to correct. Incremental planning is less daunting. Incremental proposals are more readily explained.

Especially between the mid-1950s and the late 1980s, the city and county steadily did more together.

In 1954, the one successful Board of Freeholders proposed and the voters approved the Metropolitan Sewer District.

In 1962, the city and county electorates supported a single community college district.

As private bus and streetcar companies began to struggle in the 1960s, the city and county transformed what was a planning agency (Bi-State) into a public transit authority (now Metro).

In 1971, what were formerly two city entities -- the Zoo and the Art Museum -- and a struggling Oak Knoll science facility in Clayton, with voter consent became the Zoo-Museum District. Subsequently City and County residents voted to add the Missouri Botanical Garden (1983) and the Missouri Historical Society (1987) to the ZMD.

Other joint city-county ventures formed during this period include the Major Case Squad (1964), the Regional Justice Information System (1975), the Regional Arts Commission (1983), and the Convention and Visitors Commission (1983). The city and county also were mutual investors in what is now the Edward D. Jones Dome (1990).

The pace has slowed over the past two decades, in part because many of the more obvious opportunities for cooperation have already happened. Nevertheless, Great Rivers Greenway (also including St. Charles County) was created in the November 2000 election and, more recently, the city and county formed the Metropolitan Taxi District.

Remember, City-County No Longer Equals Regional

In 1950, equating the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County as the region for the Missouri side of the metropolitan area made sense. They had 13 residents for every one living in the three collar counties: Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles. By 1990, though, the ratio was 3-to-1 and, in 2008, it is 2-to-1.

Adding more counties to local government reform deliberations certainly complicates the politics but it better reflects the reality. At a minimum, St. Charles County -- a jurisdiction having about the same population as the City of St. Louis -- should be involved. That was the case with Great Rivers Greenway in 2000. Local government reform should be more about expanding the footprint of existing city-county collaborations to the collar counties as it is about having the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County do more together.

Treasure Localism. All too often, past and present discussions of local government reform have been framed as regionalism versus localism. Local government officials are caricatured as parochial if they question some proposed change. Reformers occasionally wrap themselves in robes of regionalism, preaching to rather than working with legitimate interests.

When you ask residents what they value most about the St. Louis area, the most common response is some variation of "it has both a small town atmosphere and cosmopolitan amenities." St. Louis needs more regionalism to improve services like public transit and enhance institutions like the ZMD members. But it must protect and foster its numerous governments, not bad mouth them. The most obvious way to maintain a "small town atmosphere" is to have a lot of small towns. What any local government reform effort in St. Louis must do is to strike the right balance between regionalism and localism, not pit one against the other.

Terry Jones is professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of "Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments."

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