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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.

St. Louis City-County Merger Debate To Restart With Board Of Freeholders Formation

A group known as Better Together is proposing a plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County. They're planning to get the measure on the 2020 ballot.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Nineteen members will constitute the Board of Freeholders, which will have a year to formulate and present a merger plan.

The St. Louis region is about to rekindle a debate over whether to potentially merge St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis turned in the final signatures Monday to kick off what’s known as the Board of Freeholders. That 19-person body will have a year to present St. Louis and St. Louis County voters with a city-county merger plan.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page will each appoint nine members to the board. Gov. Mike Parson will appoint the final member. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen and St. Louis County Council must approve Page and Krewson’s selections.

Page and Krewson are expected to make their freeholders selections as soon as the city and county election boards certify the signatures. More than 100 people have applied to join the board in the city and about 70 have sought the appointment in the county. The Missouri Constitution states that the board members must be appointed and approved 10 days after the signatures are certified.

“My approach is I want a diverse Board of Freeholders. And when I say diverse, yes, I mean racial diversity,” Krewson said. “But I also mean age diversity, and I mean geographic diversity. Diversity of thought. I don’t have any sort of mantra that you have to follow. So I want thoughtful people who are willing to put in the brainpower to do this. I also want people who can work together in a group.”

Page and Krewson can only appoint five members of the same political party. And Krewson acknowledged that it’s been a bit of a challenge to find four non-Democrats to serve, especially since St. Louis is overwhelmingly Democratic. 

“There are many people who identify as independents or Green Party or Constitution Party or Republican,” Krewson said. “And I have quite a number of people within this 100-plus applications who do identify as non-Democrats.”

Once the board members are appointed and approved, they’ll meet in the Board of Aldermen chambers at St. Louis City Hall. After deliberating for a year, the board could opt not to present a plan to voters.

Plans that previous freeholders put forward to local voters to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County have failed to pass. Pat Kelly, Municipal League of Metro St. Louis executive director, said on Friday that one proposal that will likely be vigorously discussed is making St. Louis a municipality within St. Louis County.

“In the many debates we’ve had in the last year or so since Better Together was really moving forward, the two questions that people seem to ask me the most were, ‘Why isn’t St. Louis part of St. Louis County?’ And the second one is, ‘Why should it be part of St. Louis County?’” Kelly said. “And so we need to answer those questions. And then see if that’s a viable step to the future for St. Louis.”

Moving past Better Together

The Better Together merger plan would have combined St. Louis and St. Louis County into a metro government. That effort, which would have been put before statewide voters in 2020, collapsed earlier this year.

Detractors of the Better Together plan contended that creating a largely white voting jurisdiction would have made it difficult for black politicians to accumulate significant power. Critics also didn’t like that voters statewide, as opposed to local voters, would vote on the plan — or that former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger was originally designated as the unelected and powerful “metro mayor.”

Page said earlier this summer that the freeholders need to avoid some of the mistakes of Better Together.

“Better Together collapsed because it tried to do too much. And if you pack too much change in one bite, it very quickly becomes something that can’t pass,” Page said. “And whatever this constitutional convention process this Board of Freeholders chooses to do has to be adopted by the voters. It has to pass St. Louis County voters, and it has to pass St. Louis City voters. And if it doesn’t, we have nothing.”

While making St. Louis a municipality within St. Louis County is less expansive than the Better Together plan, it would present political and practical challenges. For instance: That idea would likely eliminate a host of elected city offices now held by African Americans — such as St. Louis’ recorder of deeds and license collector.

St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said bringing the city into the county will also present a host of important financial questions that will need to be answered ahead of any public vote.

“Does that make [St. Louis] the elephant in the room so to speak from a political standpoint? Or they going to dictate where things go within the county, because of their sheer population?” Harder said earlier year. “And maybe extra representation on the county council? We don’t know. And there’s a lot of those discussions. The big discussion is over money.”

St. Louis Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward, said that he’s skeptical that the Board of Freeholders can come up with a plan that addresses the immense racial divisions within the region in just a year.

“I hope that it’s fair when it comes down to who’s choosing who the members of that board will be,” Bosley said. “We have seen in the city time and time again that things are pretty racially separated. And a lot of things are racially motivated and racially charged. We run from that type of a stigma. But when you look at us statistically, that haunts us and will continue to haunt us until we address it on the front end and not the back end.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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