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Lugar: Combining Governments Can Bring New Life To Urban Communities

Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Monday, March 3, 2014 to include audio from St. Louis on the Air.

Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar remembers a time when his home city was described by travel writers as “Indianapolis No Place.” 

When the Indiana Republican became mayor of Indianapolis in the 1960s, the city was mired in a “mediocre, flat situation.” He said it received “very little interest to anybody outside who was not involved parochially.”   

Lugar was the keynote speaker at a St. Louis University Law School symposium exploring a possible merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County. He said Indianapolis' current condition is brighter. He attributes the merger of the city of Indianapolis and Marion County with:

  • Attracting more jobs to Indianapolis.
  • Making it easier to build sports facilities, including ones for the Indiana Pacers and the Indianapolis Colts.
  • Bringing more tourists to the city.

And, he said, the merger – known as Unigov – made the city globally competitive.
“This means, as opposed to having intramural arguments at home, we really better solidify our idealism and our actual content so that we have the most competitive engines for growth,” Lugar said.

Lugar’s speech – and SLU Law’s symposium – comes amid increased regional conversation about the so-called “Great Divorce.” That’s the term used to describe how the two jurisdictions split up in 1876.

Several efforts to reunite the city and county have faltered over the years, most recently in 1962. But the topic is on the front burner again after a group called Better Together formed to explore the possibility of a merger.

“When you talk about the city and the county, people become very passionate about that conversation,” said St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. “Some are very suspicious. Some are very hopeful. Some [ask] what are they talking about or does it really matter? It does matter.”

“It is about jobs, economic growth and the well-being of our community,” he added. “It does matter.”

Some – such as St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay – have advocated having the city join the county as a municipality. Others – such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Page– have broached the possibility of having the city and county become a giant municipality known as “St. Louis.” That’s a somewhat similar concept to Unigov, although some municipalities in Marion County chose not to participate.

For Lugar, any type of local governmental consolidation requires “a political fervor in addition to … the metrics and the facts and so forth.” He also said it must stem from a desire to enliven civic life.

“Ultimately a majority of people were very excited about being the best or vying to be the best,” said Lugar in an interview after his speech. “They really saw in life a degree of enthusiasm and adventure and expressed themselves by really reorganizing.”

State legislative decision

Lugar made a special emphasis that the Indiana legislature was ultimately responsible for implementing Unigov. That contrasts with the expectations of St. Louis' officials. Both Slay and Dooley emphasized that any type of merger would require a public vote. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley both spoke at symposium.

For Indianapolis, Lugar said he believed that the mayor, the city council and the state legislature epitomized “Democratic expression” in merging the two entities.

“And these people ought to have the ability to use their authority to make the changes that were vital,” Lugar said. “I appreciated from the history of these things that opponents always say ‘no, we’ve got to have a referendum.’ Because they always felt that there would be a lot of people with prejudices, misinformation, lack of interest in all of this. … Those who had positive ideals would be in the minority.”

For his part, Slay said “we’ve already made a commitment that whatever we’re going to do is going to come to a public vote.”

“I think that’s essential,” Slay said. “We want people to know that they matter. I mean, this is going to affect the people of St. Louis. And it’s a several step process. One of them is to make sure that people who are affected – city and county residents – know what it means to them.”

Former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, speaks to reporters after his keynote speech.

Slay also said “I do understand that makes it a bigger challenge, but I think it will be a better effort overall.”

Indeed, some St. Louis County Republicans have already started mobilizing against any type of merger.

And some of the city's African-American leaders who feel they're losing political clout could also oppose any proposed merger. Lugar said one of “several demographic obstacles” to Unigov was opposition from African-Americans who felt this would “dilute our authority.”

University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Todd Swanstrom was one of the symposium’s panelists. He said he’s worried that “civic conversations” about merging the city and the county are "kind of a red herring across the public space.”

“Because the likelihood of a merger happening in the near future is very, very slim,” Swanstrom said. “But I think the likelihood that we could get together and do things through councils of governments, through informal collaboration, through contracts, through public initiatives. I think there’s a lot that can be done. And those baby steps or smaller steps will get us to institutional reform.”

Too many cooks?

The symposium also featured panels on how a merger could impact regional governance, public safety and urbanization. 

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay talk to reporters about the prospect of a city-county merger.

During one of the panels, former Urban League President Jim Buford revealed how some small St. Louis County municipalities don’t have any debt. Some are small, predominantly African-American municipalities in north St. Louis County.

Buford said that not having debt may seem like a good thing. But, he said, it also means the cities don’t have access to credit. And that means those cities can’t fix roads or hire police officers.

“Without the ability to issue debt, some municipalities cannot make capital improvements,” said Buford, who is a board member of Better Together. “They cannot invest in infrastructure. And without this ability, the doors to growth and opportunity slam shut. The economic ladder in these areas is not just difficult to climb, its non-existent.”

Buford emphasized that he was releasing the data on the cities' lack of debt for informational purposes, adding it would be up to local leaders to devise a solution. That could include some municipalities merging with each other or having some cities dissolve.

After Buford finished, Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston suggested that Buford “drill down beneath the numbers themselves and talk to the municipalities and their leadership have not issued debt.”

“I would submit that it’s not fragmentation that is the obstacle. It is more a function of the quality of the leadership that takes on the mayor’s role or the board of aldermen or the board of trustees or the city council,” said Huddleston. “If you are not aware of the tools at your disposal, you won’t use them. And I do suspect that in some of the municipalities where no debt has been issued, they simply don’t know.”  

Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch said the region’s municipalities “have provided a lot of richness” for St. Louis.

“People love their cities. They love their communities,” Welch said. “And one of the things that makes St. Louis so rich is you can choose to live in a suburban community or an inner city community… but you have your choice. And you can also choose the kind of local services that you want. So yeah, I’m concerned that we maintain that ability for citizens to make choices.”

Dooley – the former mayor of Northwoods – said the county’s municipalities have “a lot to be proud about.” He said that having 90 municipalities hasn’t stopped Boeing, Express Scripts or Monsanto from locating in St. Louis County.

“I’m not concerned about how many municipalities we have,” Dooley said. “I’m concerned about the level of service that we provide.”

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