Written by Jim Brasfield
It is the “Great Divorce.” In 1876 the City of St. Louis separated itself from St. Louis County and the farmers in Clayton. St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country and becoming a major manufacturing hub. St Louis County was a tenth the size of the city.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of major cities spilled OK over historic boundaries. Many grew by the annexation of adjoining land. This was not possible for St. Louis with boundaries frozen as of 1876.
By the 1920s civic leaders realized the Great Divorce was a mistake. In 1926 and 1930. Changes in St.Louis local government structure were proposed and rejected by the voters. In the late 1950s, two more reorganization plans were put forward and also rebuffed in elections. A county-only consolidation of municipalities in 1988, which never came to a vote.
Each generation has come to believe St. Louis needs to nullify the 1876 divorce. All have been unsuccessful. Why bother? Population shifts have dramatically reduced the City size. The whole region has not grown in the last half-century, and St. Charles County is now larger than the City of St. Louis.
Better Together argues economic expansion and population growth are hampered by the local government structure. Their vision is a single unit encompassing both city and county. Is this a magic bullet for future prosperity?
The Better Together plan consolidates the city and county. Current municipalities cease to exist as cities and become administrative districts with limited responsibilities, which no longer include police and public works services.
It is a constitutional amendment requiring a statewide vote. Voters in both city and county could reject this proposal, and the plan would be imposed, if voters across the state vote for it. The charter of the Metro City would be written by the mayor and county executive with no opportunity for a vote of the people, contrary to common practice. Future charter amendments would need a two-thirds vote for approval. Consolidation of central cities and counties tend to reduce, not enhance, minority representation. Many minority leaders have expressed opposition.
A successful metropolitan area does not need a large service bureaucracy, but a system of areawide coordination that includes entities across the region. A St. Louis plan that neglects rapidly growing St. Charles and the region’s Illinois population is a vision seen in the rear-view mirror rather than one that looks to the real future. The Better Together plan was hatched by a small group with a narrow view without engagement from community leaders across the region. It should not be a surprise that opposition grows each day.
Is the status quo the best approach? Leaders across the region recognize the need for some changes. I will conclude by listing my personal preferences for meaningful change.
End the Great Divorce by having the city re-enter the county as a municipality.
There are currently 88 municipalities in the county with about half under 5000 in population. Many will not be viable future service providers. Set up a process that will within a reasonable period of time provide incentives for consolidation of small cities into larger groupings.
Examine the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council and/or the Bi-State Development Agency as potential vehicles for the promotion of regional economic development.
These are ideas both proponents and opponents of the Better Together plan might unite around to produce a broad approach to regional issues. Signatures are being gathered to create a Board of Electors. If successful, this will provide a transparent and inclusive process for producing reform with broad community support.