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Better Together Pulls City-County Merger Plan, Will Aim For Local Vote If Revived

A group known as Better Together is proposing a plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County. They're planning to get the measure on the 2020 ballot.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 7:30 p.m., May 6 — Better Together is withdrawing its effort to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County through a statewide initiative petition, instead regrouping to focus its efforts on trying to get only city and county residents to approve a plan sometime in the future.

For now, it’s the end of an ambitious proposal that would have reshaped regional government — but also stoked opposition from across the political spectrum.

“I find that many people do not attend to things that they hear about until it’s right in front of them and confronts them,” said Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, who was leading the effort to implement the merger plan. “And it’s evident that our community needs more education about what is necessary, the problems we face, and how best to solve them.”

The Better Together plan would have a “metro government” oversee what is now St. Louis and St. Louis County. That government would be in charge of public safety, economic development and infrastructure needs for the 1.3 million people that encompass the city and county.

Merger proponents said they needed to pursue a statewide vote in order to merge police departments and municipal courts. But detractors from across the political spectrum objected to taking the proposal to the statewide ballot, especially since that meant the merger could still be implemented even if city and county voters rejected it. The Missouri House overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that would have required local approval before a merger takes place.

Wrighton acknowledged Monday that the prospect of a statewide vote was a difficult sell for city and county residents.

“I think many people, by human nature, would say, ‘Why are others having the ability to control what government we would have in our region?’ And I think that will continue to be a concern,” he said. “Of course, now we’re saying it would be a good idea to try and find a way to bring about a local vote. But the statewide vote was necessary to realize one municipal court system, a common police department. This would bring about equal justice in our community. And many of the challenges that we face could only be dealt with through the plan that has been developed.”

The Better Together plan also faced substantial opposition from African American political leaders. Many contended creating a majority white voting jurisdiction would make it difficult for a black candidate to be elected mayor, assessor or prosecutor. And others objected to the idea of St. Louis County’s leaders being the first mayor, assessor and prosecutor.

Another factor that Wrighton cited was former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s guilty plea on federal corruption charges. Better Together’s plan would have originally made Stenger the first powerful “metro mayor” through 2025, though that part of the proposal was scrapped after the Democratic official’s legal woes became public.

“We feel that shook the confidence of the community — many of whom were supporting this effort. So we feel that was a factor, but there are others,” Wrighton said. “But none of this has diminished the importance of executing the plan that had been developed after five years of research as to what this fragmentation has been costing us.”

Next steps

Wrighton said that merger proponents were not giving up on eventually implementing the plan through a local vote. And it’s possible actually following through with that could require buy-in from statewide voters.

One possibility is having Missourians expand the powers of what’s historically known as the Board of Freeholders, which could produce a plan decided on by city and county residents. If the Missouri constitution was amended to allow the freeholders to propose a plan consolidating police departments and municipal courts, then the Better Together plan could be implemented through that route.

“The government is inefficient and more costly than this region can afford,” Wrighton said. “And other communities that have come together in their city and county are thriving. And we’re stagnating. Our population in the city and in the county is declining. And in order to realize economic growth, equity for all, a better justice system, more even policing — these are all objectives that we still hold as important.”

Whether that course of action could actually succeed remains to be seen. Other attempts to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County through the freeholders process have failed throughout the past few decades. But opponents of the Better Together plan, including Pat Kelly of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, contended it was a more public way to devise a merger proposal.

“We still want to pursue the Board of Freeholders to develop that public process to see what the will of the residents of St. Louis city and county are,” Kelly said.

The Board of Freeholders would consist of 19 members primarily chosen by the St. Louis County executive and the St. Louis mayor. Kelly said he would like to see Better Together’s support for the Board of Freeholders process.

“Some of the questions that Better Together raised are things that now people are aware of,” Kelly said. “We really do have an opportunity to work in a positive way, in a collaborative way, to maybe make some significant improvements in St. Louis city and county.”

Leaders react to plan’s demise

Better Together’s announcement stoked a flurry of reaction from local and state leaders.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson tweeted that she asked Better Together to pause the petition effort, writing: “With the turmoil in the county, now is not the time. I believe fragmentation limits progress for our residents & I continue to support a city/county merger. We can revisit this in the future.” Krewson had been a major proponent of the Better Together process.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page praised Better Together for listening to concerns about the plan.

“Among my concerns was the statewide vote,” Page said. “I believe any change to government in the city and the county should be up to city and county voters.”

Page said he hopes future efforts at reform “will be built from the ground up, engaging community leaders, the African American community, the Municipal League and other stakeholders.”

Rep. Dean Plocher, a Des Peres Republican who sponsored the constitutional amendment requiring local approval for any merger, said in a statement that the Senate should still pass his measure — adding it’s “imperative that we never allow the fundamental principles of representative democracy and self-rule be put at risk in our state.”

And Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, added the “most serious of the Better Together plan’s many flaws was it asked Missouri voters to impose a new form of local government on St. Louis city and county against the will of the people who live there.”

“Now that the plan has been withdrawn, those who believe St. Louis consolidation is a worthy goal should work within the existing state constitutional framework to put forth a plan to be decided solely by local voters,” Bosley said. “Whatever the future holds for local governance in St. Louis, city and county residents deserve the right to determine their own destiny.”

Asked when merger backers may come up with a new strategy to implement its plan, Wrighton replied: “Well, it’s omnipresent. These problems are not going away.”

“And I would say for many in our community, there’s a sense of urgency of coming together to bring about more effective policing and greater justice through the municipal courts,” he said.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Reporter Chad Davis contributed to this article. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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