politics

OPINION: STL City and County Merger Discussions Must Return under Jones as Regional Mayor

On May 6, 2019, the ambitious “Better Together” plan to unite St. Louis City and County shelved its hotly anticipated and oftentimes controversial merger plan. With its chosen Regional Mayor, then County-Executive Steve Stenger, headed to Federal prison and other issues like concern from Black political leaders, the plan fell apart. The effort fizzled away, with no word on when it might return. It all began, however, nearly a century and a half ago when the City and County originally separated. For the many decades to come, the City hosted most of the regional growth. Quickly becoming one of the largest U.S. cities, bolstered by railroads, a huge river, and even a closer-than-many-expect plan to make St. Louis the actual U.S. Capitol, the City of St. Louis unquestionably thrived.

Of course, the tides shifted some in the mid-to-late 20th century. St. Louis City saw its population decline by historic proportions as the County gained residents rapidly through suburbanization. There were many forces at play, with some County municipalities created with segregationist motives, urban renewal in urban centers demolishing Black neighborhoods, redlining, restrictive covenants, “white flight”, and more. It is a complicated story to tell, but one worth in-depth research from those curious about the history of the St. Louis region.

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Now, in what appears to be a decade of tumult in many ways for the City including crime and vacancy, there are many reasons to be optimistic. We cover a host of them here, but here’s the short of it. There are thousands of residential units under construction in St. Louis City, hundreds of millions of dollars from the Federal government, billions in building permits over the last few years, rising property values even in many Northern St. Louis neighborhoods, dozens of tiny homes and new services available for unhoused people, and tens of millions of dollars through Prop N.S. to renovate old buildings. Add to that a growing Central Corridor, tax base, annual budget, etc. and it appears as though the City itself is strengthening.

Looking at the region exclusively through the lens of there being one winner and one loser is part of the problem, however. The City doing well or the County doing well often comes at the expense of the other. For the City to grow its corporate base or lease new office space, it often poaches companies from the County and vice-versa. Municipalities play the game “Let’s see who can offer the most incentives!” to huge corporations, effectively nullifying the benefits and creating a race to the bottom. They will compete and do anything for precious sales taxes, even razing dozens of homes, schools, churches, and local businesses for a Costco in University City, for example. There are dozens of police departments, mayors, local council-members, school districts, urban planners, and more all doing the same work but competing against one another. There are even completely separate judicial systems distributing uneven justice.

Regional fragmentation leads to a host of duplicate tasks, uneven accountability, increased costs, and even a cultural/social divide that harms the region. There are many people who live in “St. Louis”, who would never step foot into Downtown STL and claim the region would be better off without the City. Of course, this view is bolstered by crime stats that truly don’t look too good, but neglects the importance of the many incredible cultural institutions, historic architecture, parks, hospitals, schools, urban form, local businesses, etc. that make the City great. The divide extends the opposite way as well, with many City dwellers looking down upon County residents for choosing to live in less-diverse, car-centric, often more conservative neighborhoods that were historically built to keep out Black residents.

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If all this sounds unhealthy for the region – know that it absolutely is. No one talks more negatively about St. Louis than St. Louisans themselves, and we assume as a culture that all those outside the region view us unfavorably as well. The reality is that they really don’t. While we are bombarded with KSDK, KMOV, and Post-Dispatch stories daily detailing the violence and other problems we face, other cities are too – but with their own problems. National news is so focused on partisan affairs that they hardly pay us any attention. We are finely attuned to our problems, but others know nothing besides our beer scene, the Arch, Washington University, etc. Every family member or friend who visits me in St. Louis has left with a positive impression, and it is a region that kept me – a transplant from Los Angeles – post graduation.

One of the reasons that I stayed was the real potential evident across St. Louis. We have the architecture, the culture, the diversity, the sports teams, the river, the colleges and universities, the food, the beer, the coffee, the kindness, and much more. For how great the region can seem, we’re often operating with one hand tied behind our proverbial back. For example, we can’t make a real, coordinated effort on reforming policing if only the City and a couple County municipalities change their rules because there would still be dozens left with rules unchanged. We cannot truly address housing or income disparities on race if only part of the region chooses to do so. We cannot make investments in infrastructure that affect people equitably if we do so through a fragmented process. With hundreds of millions of dollars coming in to the City and the County, we CAN make historic investments together, but we will end up doing so without coordinating the effort for maximum effect.

Even if I could convince the average reader that a merger, or some furthered and comprehensive cooperation were to be for the better, a reasonable question regarding political leadership inherently emerges. Aside from the unknowns like how many council members there would be in a merged St. Louis City and County, or what those very districts would look like, there would have to be an agreement on who the Regional Mayor would be. Or, if no agreement is possible before a merger, what electoral process would take place to settle this question.

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Perhaps the best solution could be to settle upon a “Caretaker Regional Mayor” – one who would oversee the unified City and County post-merger and serve until an election that they would be allowed to take place in. A one year term would be long enough to ensure there was durable leadership in the near-term but not so long that those who disapprove of said person would not have a foreseeable election date on the horizon. Newly elected Mayor Tishaura Jones is uniquely qualified for this position. Mayor Jones has strong support from broad sections of St. Louis, managing to pull in respectable numbers even in South St. Louis wards. She also has strong regional connections, with her former experience in the State Legislature, endorsement from County Executive Sam Page, and the large number of Aldermen who endorsed her in her run.

Many will likely cringe or even stop reading this opinion at the mere mention of Mayor Jones. Some speculate, even claim that without a reasonable doubt, that Mayor Jones is corrupt. Others fall back upon racial stereotypes and even sexist discourse suggesting that she will simply be a tool of her father. Here’s the thing – Mayor Jones has never so much as been indicted for a crime, so those who boldly claim that she is without a doubt corrupt do so as armchair prosecutor, judge, and jury. Some point to her international travel that was broadly related to furthering government competence, others suggest that she was even under investigation from the FBI for parking contracts while she was Treasurer. As salacious as these headlines can be, there has been zero follow-up or indication that such “investigation” was ever taking place following other commentary that any anonymous or politically motivated tip could lead to the actions written about in the McPherson report.

That leaves us with a host of allegations mixed with racist and sexist discourse – none of which has ever been proven in any judicial setting. Most see only the headlines, failing to check in on a story after it is published. None of these have panned out, and there is no reason to think that any must be true.

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The reason for this aside is to suggest that the discomfort with Mayor Jones may, to some degree, be unjustified. When taking away these allegations, she is by and large the best candidate for the job. She is the Mayor of the City of St. Louis, home to the Gateway Arch National Park, Busch Stadium, Forest Park, and other cultural institutions that represent what the public knows of St. Louis. She is also a young, Black, progressive woman who could genuinely seem like a fresh, positive face and contribute to a more sunny narrative for the region to the rest of the country. This is merely anecdotal, but I have already seen threads with folks from other cities considering a move to St. Louis just because of Cori Bush and Tishaura Jones.

She has already shown a large degree of competence and community engagement coming out of the Pandemic as well. Her grassroots support is impressive, and her community-driven budgeting process for the COVID-19 funds from the Federal government enticed thousands of responses and her Stimulus Advisory Board has already released a draft of plans that will help tens of thousands of St. Louisans in accordance to their priorities given. She has shown that she is willing to take on excessive subsidies for corporate development, vetoing two Central Corridor tax incentives but also negotiating with The Lawrence Group at the City Foundry for a more equitable incentive package – one that the developer is publicly excited about and supportive of.

Even if I haven’t convinced you that Mayor Jones is the best choice for Regional Mayor, still consider the bigger picture. Our region is stagnant in population. A fragmented approach does little for our region, and a more unified face could help us prepare for the next century. We have so much potential, and too many cooks in the kitchen all with competing interests. It’s time to revive Better Together, but from the bottom up rather than the top down.

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