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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 County Council Approves Most Board Of Freeholders Picks

St. Louis County Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-south St. Louis County, voted against a few nominees to the Board of Freeholders that were proposed by County Executive Sam Page.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis County Council signed off oneight of nine nominees to the regional Board of Freeholders on Tuesday night.

It is waiting to vote on the ninth nominee, independent Dee Joyner, until next week, said the council’s presiding officer, Ernie Trakas. The county council members haven’t had a chance to interview Joyner yet because she has been out of the country.

The Board of Freeholders will be tasked with rethinking county and city government. It could propose the merger of county and city services — or nothing at all. Whatever it proposes must go to a vote of county and St. Louis residents before being implemented.

The board is supposed to be made up of nine representatives from the county, nine representatives from St. Louis and one gubernatorial appointee. With Tuesday night’s votes, the county moved further along in the process than the city.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson is struggling to get freeholder nominees confirmed by the Board of Aldermen. It’s unclear what might happen if agreement can’t be reached about the city freeholders.

The county may have moved ahead of the city in the process, but the county council didn’t wholeheartedly agree with all of County Executive Sam Page’s nominees, either.

The council unanimously approved just three of the eight county freeholders — Republican Katy Forand, Democrat Cheryl Milton Roberts and Democrat Fred Searcy. The other five were confirmed on split votes. 

Independent Alex Garza, Democrat Mark Mantovani and Democrat Jason Wilson were confirmed on 4-3 votes that split along partisan lines, with all Republican county council members in opposition to the nominations.

Garza is the chief medical officer at SSM Health. Mantovani is a businessman who lost the Democratic nomination for county executive in 2018 to Steve Stenger. Wilson owns Northwest Roasting Co. and is a member of the Clayton school board.

“I like Mark. I just felt he had a predetermined position with respect to the reentry of the city of St. Louis into St. Louis County. And what the Board of Freeholders needs is objectivity,” said Trakas about his vote against Mantovani.

Republican John Nations and Democrat Carol Stroker were confirmed on 5-2 votes. Stroker is a former Missouri House member and Hazelwood city councilwoman.

Nations is the former Bi-State Development Agency CEO. Kelli Dunaway, a Democrat, and Tim Fitch, a Republican, voted against him because they said he hadn’t taken enough responsibility for the current problems with MetroLink and the region’s bus system.

Shortly before the council voted Tuesday, Gov. Mike Parson announced his selection for the Board of Freeholders. The governor picked Joseph Blanner, of Jefferson County, an attorney who practices in St. Louis County. He’s active in construction and building associations as well as the University of Missouri-St. Louis Alumni Association.

St. Louis County Council wants feds to audit loop trolley

The council voted unanimously Tuesday night to ask the federal government to perform an audit on the Loop Trolley that runs from Forest Park to University City.

The trolley — which has only been up and running for a year — is in danger of shutting down over the next three months if it doesn’t get a major infusion of cash. The Loop Trolley Companyasked the county to provide an extra $200,000 immediately, followed by an additional $500,000 next year to keep operations stable.

So far, the countyhas refused — and county council members now seem concerned that money given to the trolley in previous years wasn’t well spent. Councilman Mark Harder said the trolley cost $53 million to build. The federal government provided the bulk of the funding, around $34 million, for the project.

“This project has been plagued with all kinds of mismanagement, in my opinion,” Harder said, adding, “They’ve had delays, cost overruns, bad engineering.”

If the trolley shuts down, the federal government will likely try to get back at least some of the funding it provided. Harder said he is also hoping an audit will provide clarity about what responsibilities the county might have for the trolley in the future.

The $53 million in funding was spent on much more than just construction of the trolley, said John Meyer, Loop Trolley Company board president, in a written statement. 

The money “also funded major infrastructure improvements in the community such as the new roundabout at University City City Hall, bridges at the Forest Park and Delmar Loop MetroLink stations, new gas lines along Delmar Boulevard, the DeBaliviere beautification project and the St. Vincent Greenway,” he said.

The Loop Trolley Company says it could provide more information about its finances if the county held a hearing about the trolley’s operations. 

Council puts off vote on airport privatization

Trakas, the presiding officer, pulled from the council's agenda a scathing resolution the county had drafted on the handling of the airport privatization process by St. Louis.

Among other things, the resolution urged St. Louis to be more open and transparent about airport privatization. It referred to the city’s current deliberations as a “secretive effort.” In the resolution, the county asked that the city release all documents related to the airport privatization.

The resolution also recommended that all the major municipalities in the region as well as St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties take a public, nonbinding vote on whether the airport privatizes. There has been some discussion of St. Louis residents voting on the airport privatization, but not citizens in the suburban jurisdictions casting ballots.

The airport is a city-owned facility, but it is located in the middle of a northern section of St. Louis County. Trakas said that means everyone in the region should have a say over what happens at the property.

“I think they [our residents] have the right to be heard about an asset that affects everyone in the region,” he said.

Trakas said the resolution had enough votes to pass Tuesday, but he deferred it out of respect for Adolphus Pruitt, head of the city’s NAACP chapter. 

Pruitt said at the county council meeting Tuesday that many of the documents Trakas wanted could be found on the Airport Advisory Working Group's website. Trakas said he would take a look at the website before bringing the resolution back up for a vote.

Relations between the city and the county over the airport privatization were already tense. Krewson is upset the St. Louis County Port Authority is moving forward with its own study of airport privatization.

"I do think the fact that we had no heads-up on this, not even a courtesy call — 'Hey, we're going to study your airport' — is not exactly in the spirit of cooperation and regionalism," Krewson said inan interview with the St. Louis Business Journal. "It's not very neighborly."

Krewson’s office declined to comment on the county’s proposed resolution once the measure was pulled from the agenda Tuesday night.

Prior to the resolution being tabled, Lejuan Strickland, communications director for the Airport Advisory Working Group, said the county isn’t entitled to a say over what happens with the airport. 

“It’s a city-owned asset. You can’t just take someone’s home and decide what you are going to do with it," he said. "I don’t think they have the grounds to do that.”

Follow Julie on Twitter: @jsodonoghue

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