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St. Louis board president race offers differing views of making the city work for all

A collage of Megan Green (left) and Jack Coatar (right)
Rachel Lippmann / St. Louis Public Radio
Courtesy of Jack Coatar
Neither Megan Green nor Jack Coatar planned to run for a citywide office, but the resignation of Lewis Reed offered an opportunity they said they could not pass up.

Neither candidate in next week’s special election for president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen had any plans to run for a citywide office in 2023.

But when Lewis Reed resigned in June after being indicted on federal corruption charges, neither Megan Green nor Jack Coatar felt they could pass up the opportunity.

“My phone started ringing off the hook,” said Green, who currently represents the 15th Ward. “And then the mayor called me and said, ‘Hey, we need you to do this. Get ready to run.’ And, you know, it's really hard to say no to the mayor.”

The timing of the election wasn’t great for Coatar and his family. His wife, Susan, was eight months pregnant with their first child when the post opened up.

“But I saw an opportunity,” said Coatar, who currently represents the 7th Ward and had been planning to run in the new 8th Ward. “There's a leadership vacuum at the board. And I think I'm uniquely positioned to fill it.”

Both candidates want to create a St. Louis that works for everyone, but they understand that phrase differently. Coatar focuses on the nuts and bolts of government, like getting the trash picked up and 911 calls answered.

“We’ve got to get that stuff right,” he said. “We are people’s first contact with local government.”

For Green, the scandal that forced out Reed and two other aldermen pointed to a board that was putting developers ahead of residents.

“We have had a Board of Aldermen that has not been working in the public interest and has not been working for the benefit of everyday folks in our city,” she said. “I'm committed to changing that.”

Reed and Aldermen John Collins-Muhammad and Jeffrey Boydadmitted to accepting cash and other gifts from an unidentified developer in exchange for helping the developer get incentives. All will be sentenced in December.

St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis exits the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed speaks to reporters after exiting the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse on June 2 in downtown St. Louis.

Setting the agenda

Both candidates said the scandal demonstrated the need for the city to set clear guidelines for development incentives. The current system is backward, Coatar said. Developers approach aldermen with projects who then have to make a decision without knowing all the information.

The first stop, he said, should be the city’s development agency, which can “run the numbers, do some vetting of the developer.”

“You can't cut the elected officials out of the process, and I'm not suggesting that,” Coatar said. "But you do need to have somebody doing some basic due diligence on these folks before this gets to policymakers, some of whom aren't equipped to look at the finer granular details of a development project.”

Green proposed setting up a citywide development strategy that would make it clear to developers what level of incentives they could expect in different areas of the city, along with the required community benefits like affordable housing or payments to St. Louis Public Schools.

Such a strategy, she said, would not be a problem for good developers.

“They just want to know what’s expected of them,” Green said. “And they want to know that everyone is playing by the same rules.”

The winner of next week’s race won’t have much time to implement a development strategy or agenda. Though the legislative session ends April 17, winter break and municipal election season mean there are just 11 meetings left, and aldermen have a lot of work to do. There are dozens of bills still on the agenda, covering everything from speed humps to big development projects. Aldermen also still need to appropriate the remaining $250 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The Board of Aldermen chambers on Dec. 13, 2019.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Currently, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, shown here meeting in City Hall in December 2019, has 28 members. Because of a charter amendment passed in 2012, that number will be down to 14 after the election in April.

Perhaps the biggest item on the to-do list is getting the board ready to operate as a body of 14. Everything — the committee structure, the number of votes for a majority, the way certain taxes are distributed — is based on having 28 aldermen. While some changes are simple, others could require delicate negotiations, something Coatar said he is better equipped to handle due to his close relationships with colleagues across the city.

“I have their respect,” he said. “And that's something, I think, where me and my opponent differ.”

It’s not that Green isn’t respected, Coatar said, “but she has a difficult time building consensus.”

Green said that’s not true. She learned consensus building as a Coro Fellow in 2005 but said she and other progressives were never given a chance to be successful.

“We had a president and a few of his allies who were intent on doing business in a way that was not in the benefit of the people,” she said.

Both Green and Coatar believe the board will need additional staff, especially with the larger wards. Green would also explore making alderman a full-time position.

Whoever wins will also face the difficult job of keeping their colleagues focused on the tasks at hand. Filing for the April 2023 municipal elections starts Nov. 28, and while some aldermen have already said they will not be seeking reelection, others will be deciding whether to run against their colleagues. In addition, either Green or Coatar will have to make a decision about their own political future — whether to run for reelection as the short-term incumbent, run for the seat again, alongside whoever else might jump in, or run in their new wards.

Midterm elections

The timing of Reed’s resignation meant the general election to fill his term lined up with the November midterm election. While that allowed the city’s elections officials to save money, it meant a more expensive campaign for the candidates, and that’s where Coatar has the advantage. Recent campaign finance reports showed him with more than four times the amount of money to spend, but Green came in first in September’s primary, despite being at a similar financial disadvantage.

“I'm funded by a very grassroots network of folks,” she said. “I barely have any real estate money that goes into my campaign coffers. And I think that's really important.”

Spencer Fane, the law firm that employs Coatar, does quite a bit of work with developers in the city. Coatar said he has rigorously followed the board’s conflict of interest policies and will be evaluating whether he can keep practicing law if he wins.

“It's not something I'd like to give up. I love working and helping my clients, but my No. 1 priority will be being president of the Board of Aldermen,” he said.

How to vote

No-reason absentee voting is already underway at four locations. Individuals need to bring a government-issued photo identification to vote but will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot if they do not have the required ID.

Polls open at 6 a.m. Nov. 8.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann 

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.