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Contention over appointments roils St. Louis County redistricting commission

The St. Louis County Bipartisan Reapportionment Commission meets on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, at the St. Louis County government building in Clayton.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Bipartisan Reapportionment Commission meets on Monday at the St. Louis County government building in Clayton.

When members of a commission redrawing the St. Louis County Council’s seven districts met in Clayton earlier this week, the gathering wasn’t particularly contentious.

“We are committed to work toward fair districts that keep St. Louis County communities together, taking into account the importance of municipalities, geographic boundaries, and communities who identify by race or culture,” said co-chairman John Bowman in a statement Issued on behalf of the Democratic commissioners.

But getting to this point has been anything but smooth.

With a late November deadline looming to produce a map, questions over who is eligible to serve dominated the commission’s time and energy — and left both Republicans and Democrats frustrated.

The situation is especially confounding to GOP co-chair Becky Arps, since there’s virtually no chance redistricting will change partisan control of the council and the changes to the districts likely won’t be dramatic.

“So it does seem rather silly to be going through these gyrations to try to have a conversation about some minor changes that are going to happen,” Arps said.

Dr. Sam Page, St. Louis County Executive, gives a public update on rental assistance during the COVID-1 pandemic on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at the St. Louis County Government building in Clayton, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page is defending his appointments to a commission drawing council district boundaries.

Contention over eligibility

The redistricting commission meets every decade to redraw the council’s districts. It consists of one Democrat and one Republican from each district, and any proposal requires nine of 14 votes in order to go into effect. Historically, that hasn’t happened: In 2011, the commission deadlocked and a federal magistrate drew a map that made few changes.

This year, the big source of contention has been whether three commissioners that St. Louis County Executive Sam Page appointed were ineligible because they were either members of a city council or a school board. The county charter said that no commissioner can hold “public office.” One Democrat and one Republican resigned on their own, while a judge ended up kicking GOP member Curtis Faulkner off the commission because he’s a member of the Special School District Board. Faulkner is deciding whether to appeal.

Arps said that GOP officials were under the impression that “public office” meant a county office, not a school board. She said that being part of the Special School District had little to do with drawing county council lines.

“The Special School District Board has no impact on and really doesn’t care if a county person’s district starts at 170 and Olive or if it starts at 170 and Delmar,” Arps said.

Page is familiar with how the commission works, since he served on it back in the early 2010s. When asked why he ended up selecting ineligible commissioners when he had two potential choices for each of the council’s seven districts, he said, “We certainly accepted the list coming from each central committee being eligible.”

“The folks that were nominated by each committee, at least on the Republican side, were eligible. They only had to forfeit the other elected office in order to serve on the redistricting committee,” Page said. “When they chose not to forfeit their other office, then they became ineligible. So they had to choose.”

Both Page and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell have said there’s no ambiguity in the charter that public office meant any elected office, not just a county-based one.

Because of the appointment kerfuffle, Page gets to select whomever he wants to replace the four commissioner vacancies (Democratic commissioner Helena Webb stepped down for reasons unrelated to whether she held public office).

Page has an acrimonious relationship with a bipartisan majority coalition of the council. But whether his new appointments make any difference toward producing a map that makes that situation better for him, at least in the short term, is unclear. Because even if his two new Republican appointees vote with the Democrats, it’s not a sure thing all the Democratic members will agree on how to proceed.

Becky Arps, republican chairwoman, and John Bowman, democratic chairman, listen in on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, during a meeting of the county bipartisan redistricting board at the St. Louis County government building in Clayton.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Becky Arps, Republican chairwoman of the St. Louis County redistricting commission, and John Bowman, Democratic chairman, listen on Monday during a meeting of the commission at the St. Louis County government building in Clayton.

A different system needed?

Bowman is not optimistic that the commission will actually produce a map by Nov. 28. Page noted that the commission has typically failed to come up with a final product, leaving the judicial branch responsible for drawing county council lines.

That’s a similar situation to the state legislative redistricting commission, which typically deadlocks and provides ultimate responsibility to state appellate judges to draw House and Senate districts. Bowman knows this firsthand, as he is a former state representative.

“I’ve seen this process three times with legislative map drawing,” Bowman said. “Each one of them has ended up in court.”

Bowman said it’s likely whoever came up with the county’s redistricting process thought it was a good vehicle to gauge public opinion about how council district lines are drawn.

“This was a way for the public to have input. It’s just a part of a process,” Bowman said. “Because as you know, the politicians can’t get out of their way when it comes to their thinking on redistricting.”

Even if there were no controversy over Page’s appointments, Arps said it’s not a sure thing the commission would have succeeded since approving a map requires buy-in from the opposite party. She said it may be a good idea to amend the charter to allow other parties, like Libertarian or Green, to take part in the commission.

“Make it the top three parties so it’s not as limited politically,” Arps said.

The commission is planning to hear from the public in the coming days about their redistricting preferences.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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

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