When voters passed Proposition R in November of 2012, I thought we had put the issue to bed. Both the Board of Aldermen and voters chose to have 14 wards represented by 14 aldermen, instead of 28. While the vote happened in 2012, implementation had to wait until the following census, effectively 2021.
I ran around the City that fall explaining to people why I fully supported a "yes" vote. With six more years of experience on the BoA since then, I am even MORE convinced now that we should have fewer wards. But suddenly, despite what a clear majority of St. Louis voters wanted, the Board of Aldermen has cold feet. 21st ward alderman John Collins-Muhammad has introduced a bill that would repeal Proposition R before it even goes into effect, leaving the BoA at 28 members if 60% of voters approve his repeal.
That bill, introduced this last Friday, is on a fast track to get through Committee with a hearing already on this Wednesday, 6:30pm at City Hall. If you voted for Proposition R in 2012, TODAY is the time to let your alderman know about it. The members of the Legislative Committee are here.
The St. Louis region is defined by political fragmentation. We have far, far more political jurisdictions than most regions. More municipalities, more aldermen, more school districts, more police departments, and way more problems getting things done. When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. Politically, that's what defines local government within our region. A ton of elected officials, a ton of "Honorable So and So's" but no one who is actually in charge. As a result, regional policy is non-existent. Over time, the region, especially St. Louis City and County, have suffered in all kinds of ways, big and small.
A quick reminder - St. Louis has more aldermen/councilmembers per capita than almost any other City in the country. In most cases we have WAY more. We also have the same acute fragmentation the rest of the region suffers from. We don't make policy. Everything is an ad hoc decision. Want to open a daycare? Call your alderman. Want your street paved? Call your alderman. Neighbor's dog barking? Call your alderman. I joke, but only a little.
A normal city can tell you which streets are getting repaved next year. Why? Because they plan. They have a policy. Here? It's literally up to aldermen. Our public works dept. can't tell you what streets will be paved next month. Can you get your sidewalk fixed? Depends on if you alderman allocated money. Can you get a liquor license? Depends on your alderman's policy. Is your development project eligible for tax abatement? Depends on your alderman's ideas about development. Food trucks allowed? Check with your alderman. Is that bridge getting old? Hope your alderman saved some money for it. Is that street between two wards getting repaved? Hope those two aldermen get along. Can we fix the most dangerous streets in the City? Only if the alderman decides to. It's not normal, and it's not how things have to work. It CAN change.
Leadership across this region, City and County, need to take a hard look at their own houses. In 2012 we DID that. We said, "There are too many jurisdictions, too many different and conflicting policies, we need to make this better, and we need to change what we do." We needed to adapt. In an election with 74% voter turnout, 61.5% of voters agreed. The same thing needs to happen all over the region. Instead of 1,000 different personalities choosing how we do things, we need a set of policies that we implement and carry out fairly and equitably. St. Louis County is a mess too - with 89 municipalities, but once Proposition R passed, I felt like we'd taken LEADERSHIP - we could point out their mess, because we'd taken steps to clean up our own house. If we go back, we'll NEVER have the authority to do that again.
What was Proposition R about, in a nutshell:
- Larger wards would mean each alderman was far more likely to represent a more diverse area and have too keep the big picture in mind. Each ward, on balance, would look more like the whole city. And that fact would change people's perspective on how to implement policy and what was important.
- We need to professionalize how our legislative body functions. We have lots of alderman, but low capacity. We lack the professional staff that every comparable city gives their legislative branch. As a result, we don't make policy. We make ad hoc decisions, one after another, without coordination. We need to strengthen our legislative body. That means professional capacity, and we'll never increase the budget to do that under the current circumstances. The legislative branch should be an equal part of government. Currently it's not, because it operates without its own staff and information.
- Residents across the City should expect, and receive, equal treatment and services regardless of where they live. We've created a system far too dependent on which ward you live in to determine how services are delivered.
- The job, as it's currently arranged, is losing appeal. With some exceptions, the most qualified people in the City with the best professional experience are not that interested in the job. Making the job experience more professional, adding staff, and popular or not, adjusting the salary to allow more people to do the job without working another job would go a long way towards recruiting a more compelling group of candidates. We'll never do those things without reducing the number of people in the job. Within my ward, I sometimes ask people smarter and more qualified than myself if they'd be interested in this job in the future. "No" is the answer from every one of them.
- The Legislative Branch should be an equal branch of government. We're currently primarily engaged with constituent services. The issue is this: While City Departments can and should provide constituent services, no one else can be the Legislative Branch. We need lawmakers with the time and inclination to read laws. To develop and monitor policy - that City Departments respect. We don't have that today.
- It's time we adapt. The City once had 850,000 people and 28 aldermen. Today we have 315,000 on a good day. Other cities deliver better service and outcomes with fewer elected representatives. Sometimes BECAUSE they have fewer elected representatives. Voters in St. Louis chose the same path. Don't let the Board of Aldermen turn back the clock and repeal a major win for modernizing local government.