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Commentary: Improving accountability in St. Louis city hall

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2011 - Those who follow St. Louis city politics were probably shocked, but not surprised, to learn about the latest scandal involving the treasurer's office. In September, a federal grand jury indicted Fred W. Robinson, a treasurer's office employee, with stealing $250,000 from a defunct charter school. He is also charged with receiving $36,450 a year from 2006 to 2010 without showing up for work.

While Mr. Robinson has yet to have his day in court, lessons can be drawn from the allegations, for it would be a big mistake to view this as an isolated incident. The so-called ghost employment (which Treasurer Larry Williams disputes) is a symptom of a more widespread and debilitating disease: the structural rot that afflicts St. Louis city's governmental structure.

The city treasurer's office is a hold-over from the 1876 split with the county. Since then, St. Louis has the unique status of being a city that is not in a county. The city still has to provide county functions. The sheriff, circuit clerk, treasurer, etc., hold what are known, logically, as county offices.

The heads of the county offices are elected citywide and are independent of the mayor. The employees of these offices, typically, are not covered by the city's civil service laws. These officials and their employees fly under the radar in the sense that relatively few people know about them.

The federal indictment of Mr. Robinson is just the latest in a long line of scandals that have tainted the city's treasurer since Williams took office in 1981. These have included employees who get paid for work but never actually show up, drug-dealing employees and a scathing state audit in 2008. In spite of all this, Mr. Williams continues in office.

According to the treasurer's Office website, the treasurer oversees the city's banking operations and supervises the city's parking operations. This office is responsible for collecting all the city's deposits and reinvesting the proceeds as it sees fit. Revenues under the control of the Treasurer exceed $1.5 billion annually.

You would think that such a powerful office would be answerable to someone. But except for the weak public accountability exercised by the electoral process every four years, there is really no mechanism to hold the county offices accountable.

An argument can be made that keeping the treasurer and, by extension, the other county offices, independent diffuses authority and contributes to limiting the power of citywide officials, including the mayor, comptroller and the president of the Board of Aldermen. But whatever merit such an argument may have is weakened when these offices operate without any effective system of checks and balances, as already pointed out.

Another unfortunate aspect of this case is that civic leaders are well aware of the mischief potential inherent in the county offices and have tried, in the past, to eliminate their independent status.

There was a failed attempt in 2004 to make far-reaching changes in the city's governmental structure, which included giving the mayor the authority to appoint the county offices, rather than having the voters elect them. (Note: I served on the mayoral committee appointed by Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. in 1996 to examine ways to streamline city government. Several of our recommendations found their way into the 2004 Charter Reform effort.) The voters rejected this proposal because, in large part, they feared it would take away their right to vote for several citywide offices and would centralize political power in the mayor.

The reform effort was necessary, however. The city of St. Louis operates under a governmental structure put in place in 1914, nearly one hundred years ago. The proliferation of elected county offices and subsequent fragmentation of the executive, which seemed progressive and innovative in the early 20th century, is generally viewed as an impediment to municipal efficiency and accountability today.

The reformers, then and now, represent the city's business and civic elite; while opponents came from the city's political class. What is viewed by the business community as a common-sense way of managing the city -- getting rid of the independently elected county offices by putting them under the control of the mayor -- is viewed by many (but not all) political leaders as a threat to take away their power base.

Furthermore, in St. Louis, political partisanship and race are often intertwined in ways that create obstacles to changing the governmental system. The perception that the white elites were planning to take power away from African-American elected officials led to the city's minority voters being generally hostile to reform.

What can be done? Clearly, the current focus on the treasurer's office is symptomatic of a much broader issue: restoring accountability to city hall.

The first step should be to clean up the treasurer's office. If Mr. Williams has done anything illegal, or even unethical, the proper procedures should be initiated to remove him from office. Next, structural reforms should be put in place, whether as part of comprehensive reform package or piecemeal. Tying the changes to a larger package would be better, but given recent history, probably unlikely to be approved by the voters. The effort must be made to build in checks and balances on the county offices.

Corruption is a cancer that threatens the health of local government. Unfortunately, the history of reform in St. Louis does not encourage a great deal of optimism.

Robert A. Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at Saint Louis University. 

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