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Commentary: Change St. Louis City Hall - by putting change off

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - In recent years, various officials and civic denizens have debated changes to governmental organization in St. Louis. Beginning in 1949, there have been efforts to streamline the table of organization and end a weak mayor system. Major charter changes put before the voters all failed, save one. And we’ll get to that in a little bit. Other changes occurred because of state legislative action or referenda.

Mayor Francis Slay would like change in the operation of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The board, which consists of the mayor, comptroller and aldermanic president, has had budget and contract authority for the city. St. Louis is not alone in having such a board. A number of machine-style-politics cities had them as well. Most of them, as is the case with the one here, dated back to the early 20th century. Only a few cities still have such boards today; and in Baltimore and Cleveland, the mayor has control of them.

E and A is a major reason that St. Louis is called a weak mayor city. Its budgetary powers are also stronger than those of the Board of Aldermen. The aldermen debate the budget after it comes from E and A and can decrease items. They are prohibited by charter from increasing them.

In November 2012, city voters endorsed a charter change that will halve the size of the board of alderman after the 2020 census. Unlike the 2004 proposed charter changes that met ignominious defeat, this quiet measure was approved. It had been placed on the ballot by the aldermen and had active support from a critical core of these legislators. St. Louis voters have proved many times that they are resistant to change and prefer more elected offices to fewer. By having a quiet campaign not identified with Civic Progress or any particular political leader and by setting implementation to occur almost a decade away, some of the fears were tempered.

Perhaps change to E and A could be handled in a similar manner. If change were to take effect 10 years down the road it would not seem to benefit or hurt an existing E and A member. Powers of the board of aldermen in reference to budget and contracts could be augmented. In addition to voting on the operating budget and contracts, E and A approves changes to line items, some which are quite small. St. Louis could join cities that have changed the way fiduciary activity is handled in a manner that would enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

Kicking the can down the road may not seem ideal to those who want reform. But if the reform involves charter change, delay could be important to garner acceptance.

In 1876, the city broke from the county and had to assume county functions falling under state aegis. Since 2003, the voters have had the power to change those offices, but have failed to do so. Thanks to state action, the clerk of the circuit court and the public administrator are no longer elected officials. They are selected by members of the judiciary.

A number of political observers would like to change the six remaining offices as well. These offices – collector of revenue, recorder of deeds, treasurer, license collector, sheriff and circuit attorney -- have been elected for well over a century and their staffs remain patronage employees. Fewer than a thousand jobs are involved, but office holders, committee people and the staffs themselves have guarded control over them. Three of the offices collect various forms of revenue. Two of the three pay their costs, which they determine, before handling over revenue to the city. In the past, there has been difficulty meshing their data; and citizens may have to pay multiple visits to accomplish their business. A couple of the offices have been subject to critical audits by the state auditor.

Whether election implies greater representation to the people than appointment is a subject for philosophical debate. In practical terms, election impedes efficiency. Attempts to alter this situation will be difficult. Perhaps having the city re-enter the county would address the situation once and for all. But, such re-entry may be a pyrrhic dream. Objective factors supporting such change may not be able to overcome old myths and prejudices.

Change does not come easily when it relates to form of government. Yet, the organization of government and its modus operandi set the parameters within which governmental activity occurs. Any set of organizational rules is not neutral. Change affects winners and losers, and voters ought to look at that carefully.

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.

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