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No More Partisan Elections? St. Louis County Considers Major Changes To How It Operates

According to Washington University's Center for Social Development's latest study, predominantly black residents and low-income communities in the region face barriers in casting their ballots.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Voters may get to vote next year on several changes to the way St. Louis County government operates. The St. Louis County Charter Commission is considering putting several proposals for reworking government on a 2020 ballot.

St. Louis County is considering an overhaul of the way its government operates. 

The St. County Charter Commission is exploring the following options: bringing a county manager into government; doing away with partisan elections; electing the county auditor; appointing the county assessor; requiring minimum standards for the county’s 55 local police departments; and requiring county council members to work for the county full time. 

The charter commission has been meeting for months and expects to wrap up its work in December. It likely will recommend some of these changes be put on the ballot for a county vote next year, although it hasn’t determined which election cycle will be used. 

The commission includes Gene McNary, who served as St. Louis County executive for 15 years. In order for a specific proposal to end up before the voters, nine of the 14 charter commission members will have to agree on the recommendation. 

McNary said the issue of setting standards for police officers, in particular, is important to him. “Most [police officers] are good, but some don’t measure up,” he said during a community meeting Wednesday. 

The charter commission — which was appointed in 2018 — is currently soliciting input on the changes under consideration. On Wednesday, it held the first of four public comment sessions.

Only a handful of people came Wednesday evening to testify, and most of them were current or recently elected officials in St. Louis municipalities. 

There was broad consensus among those who showed up that nonpartisan elections would be beneficial to county government. Charter commission member Colleen Wasinger, a former county council member, argued that most county government functions don’t have much to do with political ideology. She also said that local municipal elections in the county are already nonpartisan.

“There are many people who identify as independents — approximately 42%, according to a recent Gallup poll. And the two-party system doesn’t allow them to participate in voting for their particular candidate,” she said. 

The commission is looking at a nonpartisan format that would include a runoff election in November between the two most popular candidates in an August primary, Wasinger said. 

The legacy of former County Executive Steve Stenger hung over some of the proposals. The charter commission acknowledged that many proposals — particularly one to split the county executive’s duties with an appointed county manager — were crafted somewhat with an eye toward preventing Stenger-era corruption in the future. 

Remaining St. Louis County Charter Commission public comment sessions:

  • Sept. 21, 1 p.m. at the Jefferson Barracks Visitor’s Center, 345 North Road
  • Sept. 25, 6 p.m. at the Manchester Justice Center, 200 Highland Road
  • Sept. 28, 9 a.m. at the North County Recreation Center, 2577 Redmond Road

Follow Julie on Twitter: @jsodonoghue

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