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UMSL's Terry Jones Reviews History Of St. Louis' 'Great Divorce' And Various Attempts To Reunite

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Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis region has been buzzing in recent days with renewed talk of potentially merging St. Louis and St. Louis County, which have been separate jurisdictions for nearly a century and a half.

The organization Better Together is expected to soon release its proposal for such a plan, potentially reversing what has become known as “the Great Divorce” of 1876. A proposal to consolidate the St. Louis Metropolitan and St. Louis County police departments has also attracted attention.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with Terry Jones, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, about the history of the jurisdictions, previous efforts to unify them and the latest efforts to do so.

Jones is the author of “Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments.” He is also a member of the board of directors for the local alliance Cities Strong.

Jones noted that there have been multiple attempts to reunite the city and county throughout the region’s history.

“Depending on how you count ‘attempt,’ [it’s] anywhere from five to 10,” he said.

One of those efforts did lead to the establishment of the joint Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District in the 1950s.

“All of the others have been rejected at the polls,” Jones added.

Over the course of the decades, the reasons for that series of rejections have run the gamut.

“You pretty much have to go proposal by proposal,” he explained. “In the 1920s the resistance came from the county. The city thought it [the city] was still the cat’s meow … and the county didn’t see it that way. And the city of course wanted to control everything in the county.”

In the mid-19th century, things were shifting.

“By the time we get to the late ’50s and they’re back at the table, the county’s view is [that] it’s growing, and [the county] should be in charge by and large, [and] the city’s saying, ‘Well, we’re still the city, and that’s what people think of first when they think of St. Louis,’” Jones said. “So they couldn’t quite figure out, or had difficulty figuring out, who should be the boss, or the ultimate boss. By the 1980s the county says, ‘It should be us,’ and the city of course resisted that.”

Fast forward to 2019, and the city and county remain split. But Jones believes there’s more regionalism happening than some may think.

“One of the things that we don’t give ourselves adequate credit for in the St. Louis region is that while we’ve rejected large-scale governmental consolidation, we’ve done a lot of things to become more regional,” he said. “We’ve developed a whole host of institutions – some public, some public-private, to do things on a regional basis.”

Along with the joint sewer district, Jones listed the museum district and police cooperation as examples.

Listen to the full discussion, which includes Jones expressing some skepticism about the latest talk of a potential merger.

Producer’s note: Representatives from Better Together will join the talk show for a conversation once the organization’s proposal is released in late January.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.