Amid the first federal corruption indictment against a St. Louis County executive, bankruptcy predictions for the City of St. Louis, and threats of succession by at least one county municipality, a range of competing reform proposals has now emerged to quell what some say may be a nearly unprecedented period of political turmoil in the St. Louis area.
District 1 St. Louis County Council member Hazel Erby (D-North County) has described the atmosphere as “traumatic.”
Central to much of the controversy is “Better Together” — a city-county merger initiative conducted by a secretive government relations firms on behalf of some of the area’s most powerful business interests.
Pelopidas, LLC, St. Louis County based lobbying firm headed by former Monsanto government relations executive Travis Brown, says its five-year-old merger effort addresses widely publicized political and economic inequities within the St. Louis region.
However, an unusually diverse array of critics – from area Republican Clubs to African American civil rights groups – contends the merger effort instead embodies them.
The City of St. Louis and St. Louis County have been separate governmental entities since 1876; when the city withdrew from the county, becoming an unusual hybrid city-county.
Built on programs established by controversial St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield, the Better Together campaign received initial funding from retired Stifel Financial CEO Bert Walker, according to presentations at a press conference early this year.
Stifel has long been a financial services provider to the City of St. Louis. The city is currently around $1.8 billion dollars in debt, according to the 2019 annual report of St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green.
In a widely quoted Twitter message earlier this year, City Comptroller Tishaura Jones assessed the city is now “one recession from bankruptcy.”
Walker is also a member of Civic Progress — the business group once described by the St. Louis Journalism Review as “the shadow government of St. Louis.”
The group has long made regional government a priority objective, according to its website. Numerous executives from Civic Progress companies have funded the Better Together campaign over recent years, served in volunteer positions, or acted as an advisor to the campaign.
Pelopidas launched its Better Together campaign in Nov. 14, 2013 — with Walker and longtime St. Louis City Hall staff member Nancy Rice as co-chairs — just four months after Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013.
On Jan. 17 of this year, the firm announced the latest in a series of merger proposals: a new regional Metro City encompassing the city and county.
The plan was promptly decried as power-grab and bailout for the financially troubled city. The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis and most of its 88 member cities passed resolutions against it. Chesterfield, Missouri Mayor Bob Nation threatened his city would succeed from St. Louis County and join St. Charles County.
Internal Pelopidas polls found 75 percent of county voters and at least half of city voters opposed the merger plan. Among the most adamantly opposed: African Americans who say the initiative would dilute their political power.
With that in mind, Pelopidas also announced it would seek to implement its metro city through a statewide petition drive for a state constitutional amendment.
Critics, including the Municipal League, condemned the strategy as an “end run” around St. Louis area voters and threat to basic principles of democracy.
Pelopidas abruptly halted the petition May 7; citing not criticism of its strategy but the indictment, a few days earlier, of then-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger on federal corruption charges.
Pelopidas spokespersons said the indictment “tainted” the merger proposal; drying up financial support and alienating potential petition signers.
Stenger would have become with first mayor of the new metro city under the Pelopidas plan. Instead he has become the first St. Louis County executive ever to resign under indictment.
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who had called for an end of the petition drive a few days earlier, offered a simpler explanation. “They heard the will of the people,” she said.
Others cite the emergence of a variety of competing proposals — including a legislative action, targeted specifically at Better Together, that was headed for Missouri House approval as the petition drive was ended.
Currently vying to reshape the St. Louis region, in various ways, are:
Pelopidas/Better Together — Though initial announcements from the Pelopidas staff indicated they would end their merger drive altogether; spokesperson a few days later said plan to regroup and offer a repackaged merger plan with more “diverse” support. No date for introduction of new proposal has been announced.
House Joint Resolution (HJR) 54 — A proposed Missouri State Constitutional Amendment designed specifically to reign-in the Better Together merger initiative. Sponsored by 89th District Rep. Dean Plocher (R-Chesterfield) the measure would prohibit future state constitutional amendments to merge or dissolve cities or counties —or create new regional entities — without approval by voters in the affected jurisdictions.
HJR 54 was awaiting final approval by the State Senate at the Chronicle’s deadline. It would be submitted to voters statewide in a special election Aug. 6
The St. Louis County Charter Commission — Authorized by county voters during the November 2018 elections, the 14-member commission, led by former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary, is at work on the first complete rewrite of the county charger in the county’s history.
McNary hopes to fundamentally restructure the county around a borough system, like that of New York City. The proposal is due in November.
Newly-elected County Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas (R-South St. Louis County) wants the new charter to help eliminate opportunities for corruption in the county.
Some commissioners favor adoption of a city manager style of government for the county and non-partisan elections.
Board of Freeholders — The Municipal League is circulating petitions for a Board of Freeholders, a unique governmental body authorized under the Missouri Constitution to allow St. Louis city and county a way to reunite.
Some 15,000 signatures are required from registered voters in the county and 5,000 signatures from voters in the city.
The board would have 19 members, half from the county, half from the city, and one representing state.
League Executive Director Pat Kelly would like to see the board consolidate the county’s present 88 municipalities into several larger municipalities.
However, resistance is likely among many area residents; fearful of the type of corruption alleged in many large cities. Many St. Louis County municipalities are already ranked among the best in the nation.
The Board of Freeholders plan would go to voters in November 2020.
State of St. Louis — Pelopidas/Better Together’s new proposal will likely be unveiled at St. Louis Business Journal’s recently announced “State of St. Louis” meeting June 7 at the Marriott St. Louis Grand Hotel.
Major initiatives affecting the St. Louis area are generally announced during such meetings over the course of each year. Despite Pelopdias’ new promise of inclusiveness, a $60 ticket price will likely keep many area residents from attending.
Both Pelopidas and County Charter Commission members are tentatively eyeing the proposed Board of Freeholders as a path to implementation of their proposals.
Meanwhile, the prospect of state action remains in the offing; with a House Special Committee on Urban Issues and Subcommittee on Urban Community Economic Development potentially interested.
Former St. Louis County police chief and current District 3 County Councilman Tim Fitch (R) is calling for the City of St Louis to proceed now with bankruptcy.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson remains the subject of a recall effort led by Alderman Brandon Bosley and Alderman John Collins-Muhammad. Alderman Bosley earlier this month called for the National Guard to be brought into the city to control crime.