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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.

Ferguson Unrest Makes A Big Impact On Better Together's Underlying Mission

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

It’s been nearly a year since a group called Better Together formed to look at St. Louis’ regional governance. From the outset, the organization met with optimism – and skepticism. 

Some were pleased the group would spark discussion on the quality and quantity of the region’s many governments. But even though the group's leaders emphasized they were collecting data and not endorsing  a specific plan, some municipal leaders criticized the group as a subterfuge for merging of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Among other things, they pointed to the organization’s moniker – Better Together. 

But it’s fair to say that Michael Brown’s death has prompted introspection of how St. Louis governs itself -- arguably to Better Together's benefit and detriment. It’s something that Better Together executive director Nancy Rice thinks about a bit “obsessively.” 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

“There is an increased desire from the people that live here to find solutions because none of us likes what we’re seeing,” Rice said. “This isn’t what we usually see in St. Louis. This is not what we’re accustomed to seeing. So the potentially serious consequences of local government gone wrong … have been laid out there. And the consequences are serious.”

To be sure, Brown’s death prompted local and national focus on the region’s patchwork of municipalities – and how some are struggling to perform basic services. It’s also brought about questions about the quality of local police departments and of elected officials -- the types of broader issues that fall into line with Better Together’s mission of streamlining what it sees as “fragmentation” throughout the region.

“When local officials make decisions and when we structure ourselves a certain way, there are consequences good and bad,” Rice said. “And maybe what this is doing for us now – this unrest we have in St. Louis – is giving us an opportunity to take a clear-eyed and candid look at ourselves and see what we can do better.”

Some issues could receive prompt attention, as Rice expects the state legislature to take a close look at the region’s municipal governance next year. State Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Boone County, said last month that lawmakers could examine whether it’s wise to have 90 municipalities and whether municipal courts need to be significantly reformed. (Better Together released a study of the region’s municipal court system last week.)

“I’m starting to feel like we’re a popcorn popper,” Rice said. “And a lot of ideas are going to be popping out. And people are going to be running with them. Hopefully, they’re running with them well-armed with facts and information.”

House in order

Better Together is expected to finish its studies on the region’s municipal finances, public safety and governmental structure next year. After that, the data could be used to somehow combine services or governments in St. Louis and St. Louis County – including potentially merging the two jurisdictions. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French says the aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting death strengthens his opinion that St. Louis and St. Louis County should not merge.

But the focus after the Ferguson unrest could be more on internal changes to St. Louis County municipalities or to the county or city as a whole – not a city-county merger. For instance, some protest leaders are working toward restructuring St. Louis’ police department or making changes to Ferguson’s city government.

During an interview in September, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, said the events of the past couple of months have made him even more convinced that the city and county should remain separate. He was critical of Better Together's efforts even before Brown died.

“The problem has always been in St. Louis County – that they had way too many municipalities,” French said. “And so, when folks in the county talked about the city and how we had too many aldermen, I would say ‘are you kidding me?’ If the 21st Ward were in St. Louis County, we’d have our own city council and our police department and our own mayor.”

“The last thing that St. Louis County needs is another municipality,” he added.

French has long been concerned about a merger’s impact on black political power. For instance, if the city’s “county” offices – such as recorder of deeds or license collector – disappear under a merger, there would be fewer avenues for black politicians to advance. 

While French emphasized that he’s not necessarily concerned about specific offices vanishing, he is worried about “diluting African-American political power.” Bolstering black political representation within local government has been of particular concern after Brown’s death.

“In the city, African-Americans represent a majority. The challenge in the city is to wake up that silent majority to start taking their political power. But if we were to merge into the county, that would get diluted a lot,” French said. “But again, St. Louis County doesn’t need another municipality. And there are a lot of ways the city and county can cooperate. But obviously our challenge right now as a region is to fix a problem in a county.”

(Of course, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley -- an African-American -- got elected countywide three times in the past decade. African-Americans make up about a quarter of St. Louis County's population -- a percentage that would increase if the city merged with the county somehow.)

For her part, Rice said the aftermath of Brown’s death might prompt supporters of any restructuring to pay “closer attention to the fairness of their representation scheme because of what has been revealed recently – and some things that have yet to be revealed.”

“I absolutely do expect people to take a swing at this – to start the process of talking about what we might change,” Rice said. “The legislative process – gosh, it’s a messy process. But it does allow these conversations to start being had in public. It does allow people the opportunity to float ideas – and for people to compare those ideas to what they view as our own self-interest.”

Roadblocks ahead?

Restructuring won’t come without some opposition. Many mayors of large and small St. Louis County towns have criticized Better Together’s findings – even going so far to pass resolutions denouncing the group. (Ferguson, interestingly, passed a resolution supporting the organization carrying out its studies.

The Missouri Municipal League is likely to push back against some recommendations of Better Together's municipal court study – including allowing towns to keep only 10 percent of its fine revenue. But Better Together executive Dave Leipholtz said those types of goals are realistic.

“That’s something that’s going to be debate,” Leipholtz said. “Our data showed – almost right down the middle – that there are municipalities in St. Louis County that do stay under that 10 percent mark and seem to operate quite well and have healthy economies. So it isn’t really, I don’t think, too far of a possibility or a suggestion for discussion because there are a lot of municipalities that already do that.”

Before the Better Together study came out,lawmakers from both parties suggested that they’d take a serious look at restructuring municipal courts next year. And both St. Louis County executive candidates said at last week’s St. Louis Public Radio debate that they support efforts to change internal court regulations that would make it easier for low-income residents to pay fines.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.