My Vote: Lyda Krewson for Mayor

I do not relish endorsements, especially this time. As an alderman, the reality is if you endorse incorrectly, and your candidate loses, you and your ward can very well be punished by the new mayor.

This is a good field of candidates, I know all of them. Most have real records and are serious and committed people. The usual endorsement goes something like: "My candidate is ideal and is the only one suited to solve our problems. The other candidates are crooked, ugly liars who will mean sure disaster." Well, I don't like to do that kind of endorsement.

But after thinking about this for literally months, thinking about which candidate is most suited for the job, weighing their pluses and minuses, probably overanalyzing some parts of their records, my last thought was this: Which of these people has made me a better alderman and a better representative for St. Louis? Which of these people respects and values my opinion? Which person can I count on to follow through when I need help delivering services? That person is Lyda Krewson, with an honorable mention to Antonio French.

First, credit where credit is due, French is a unique person. St. Louis government is much better for having him a part of it, and will be worse if he's no longer in office. There's no one (sadly including me) who can make an argument as clearly and compellingly as he can. He is usually right, and when I disagree with him, I have to think hard about why, because his arguments are convincing. He works hard, he's extremely smart, he knows St. Louis, and the reality is that alderman is an office too small for what he could accomplish with a real infrastructure around him. Some of the unflattering stories about him are the result of him trying too hard, trying to accomplish things on a shoestring budget with a completely indifferent mayor's office. But does he value my opinion? No, not really.

I respect Lyda Krewson for her work ethic, her toughness, her commitment, her intelligence, and her patience. Lyda is not a loud person. She is not a firebrand the way some other candidates can be, but she is good at connecting people, managing personalities, reaching out, and finding a way forward. She knows how to combine public and private funding to get things done. She may disagree with you, but she does not burn bridges. While that doesn't make headlines, in the long run its important for an effective leader. And Lyda is not about Lyda. She is not one to sing her own praises, or complain about her own problems.

The mayor, directly or indirectly, is responsible for 6,000 city employees. That reality has been lacking from the coverage of this mayoral contest. Who is ready to take on that substantial challenge and build a more responsive, nimble city workforce? I think Krewson is. That begins with budgets. Krewson's expertise as a CPA puts her in the best position to take on the City's generally dreary budget forecast. Evolving the City's budget to make more room for essential departments, and to pay employees in those departments a competitive salary, is essential to delivering the best service to St. Louis residents.

I know I am a little out of step with some of my friends who are picking other candidates. That doesn't bother me. What I do bristle at is the caricature some have painted of Krewson. I know its not based on any actual experience with her. One thing it has done is show how she handles criticism - she stays above it, she focuses on the work she needs to do. Being mayor is not for the faint of heart in St. Louis. You had better be ready to deal with criticism. An extended public media battle about who has been fair to you and who hasn't is quite frankly below the office. Just get on with the work. I know that's the type of personality she has - and I know she'll bring that quality to the office.

I have worked with or around all of these candidates for six years, and by far Lyda has been the most helpful to me, the most interested in what I had to say, the most willing to discuss something, and the most reliable and straightforward with her commitments.

No one 'deserves' the title of mayor. But Krewson's decades of experience and dedication to this City mean she has earned it as much, or more, than anyone else. She will be the most effective mayor from day one, and when I think she needs a push to pursue change more urgently, I believe she won't ignore my opinion. When she can help me get something done, I know she'll be there. I can't say that about the other candidates.

I think its perfectly fitting that a person who has seen both the best and worst of St. Louis should finally become our first female mayor.

My Position on an MLS Stadium

On Friday, on the radio and online, many people accused myself and Antonio French of preventing a vote on one portion of a tax increase to fund construction of an MLS stadium. Principal among those was Alderman Steve Conway, who chairs the Ways & Means Committee. Some people asked me, “Why did you block a vote, why did you leave the meeting.” Steve Conway is completely manipulating the narrative. Some people might call that lying.

Here’s what really happened on Thursday, as well as additional facts the public should know about this proposal:

There are 9 members of the Ways & Means Committee. To pass a bill requires a majority vote of a quorum. A quorum is 5 members. There were 8 members there for most of a hearing that was in excess of six hours. (Conway actually left numerous times) Near the end of the meeting, Steve Conway called for a vote. Conway said, “I move that we pass Board Bill 226,”. There was a second to the motion. A few minutes of conversation followed, then, just before the vote began, Conway said, “I withdraw my motion.” He realized, almost too late, that he had counted incorrectly and did not have the votes to pass the bill out of committee. The vote would have been 4 to 4, which is not a passing vote. I was there, in the room, ready to vote.

So who prevented a vote from happening? Steve Conway did. What did he do then? He wanted to continue to extend the meeting, knowing that more than one member of the committee had other obligations. The reality is most meetings are not 6+ hours long, and it would not be unusual at all to have a committee meeting at 9am and have another obligation at 3 or 4pm. Like, for instance, picking up a child from school. Conway, knowing that myself, Chris Carter, and Antonio French all have small children, wanted to delay until one of us was forced to leave the room, and he could pass the bill 4 to 3.

So, why is there even a rush? People have been working on an idea to bring an MLS team to St. Louis for years. And they waited until literally the last possible day to have a hearing on the bill. Even with a good bill, that’s a terrible strategy.

What do you need to know about this bill? First of all, this bill is only ONE PART of a series of bills that would need to pass in order for the City to enter into an agreement to pay for, build, and own an MLS stadium. Other bills contain essential information, like an outline of the lease terms, other financial incentives, and a commitment in writing of what the owners need to do. These bills were not even introduced until the day after the Thursday hearing, and no one on the committee had seen them.

Members of the committee were being asked to vote on an incomplete, inadequate and irresponsible proposal, which the mayor’s office intentionally withheld essential information about. Taking a vote on Thursday would have been utterly reckless.

At both the Thusday meeting, and in a Friday interview, Steve Conway made the following claim, “This project costs us nothing.” Hold on Steve. The project requires the City to:

Pass a tax increase on businesses to fund a still unidentified portion of the stadium, but in excess of $60 million.

Other bills require the City to:

Rebate sales taxes to the team.

Eliminate the 5% tax on tickets.

Pay Paul McKee 50% of the tax revenue the stadium generates. (Yes, as incredible, and insane as this sounds, its true)

And likely, as is our experience with every other stadium, pay substantial amounts to upgrade the stadium 20 or 25 years down the road.

Even the most basic level of analysis shows this is not “nothing” - its likely to grow to well over $100 million, and a degree of scrutiny is required from elected officials. Why should Paul McKee receive tax money from a stadium he did nothing to facilitate, while the City pays to build it?

What is not required:

Any payments or ticket taxes from the 85% of ticket buyers who aren’t from the City of St. Louis.

Any payment from St. Louis County, or any other County in the region.

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I’m not going to delve too deep into the other things that an increase in the Use Tax could be spent on, but the increase equates to an annual $2,800 raise for every police officer the City employs - something that people keep saying is essential to retaining our police force.

Now, even with all the information above, there’s still a bill I would vote for. But it has to do this:

Charge ticket buyers the 5% tax the law would normally require. Use that money to help pay the “City’s portion” of the stadium cost.

Sell seat licenses in advance. (Much like NFL teams do)

Cut Paul McKee out completely. Use that tax revenue to also fund the City’s portion of the stadium.

Charge higher sales taxes on products at the stadium, use that money to fund the stadium.

The team headquarters need to be located in the City, so we can collect the earnings tax on a greater portion of the team’s payroll.

The principle is that the the cost needs to be borne, to the extent possible, by the people that use the stadium. This is a basic idea, not radical in any way. Limit the City’s exposure and cost. Why should businesses in St. Louis pay a higher tax to support the entertainment of residents of St. Charles?

I was not elected to rubber stamp bad proposals for a City that is already on the financial brink. I was not elected to rubber stamp proposals with important details intentionally withheld. While Twitter may want my head, when I walk into a neighborhood meeting, my constituents are on my side. They are sick of bad deals, and they do not trust City Hall to prioritize their interests.

The MLS ownership group can still get this done. And they can even do it without a public vote - they’re just going to have to trim costs from the stadium and make soccer fans contribute to paying for construction. We’re a small City. We have major financial problems. We can’t afford more bad deals crammed though without any scrutiny.

 

 

 

It Bends Towards Justice

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." is one of President Obama's favorite quotes. He attributes it to Martin Luther King Jr. - King had used the phrase in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. King's usage was a distillation of a longer passage by Theodore Parker, an extremely politically active Boston minister and advocate for the end of slavery. In 1850 Parker wrote:

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

The combination of Parker's life, and that passage, are an essay in the urgency of progress tempered with the reality of patience. Parker organized and successfully fought against the return of people who had escaped slavery back to the south. He sheltered people being sought by slaveowners in his home and church. He was fully engaged in the struggle for abolition, but the quote above makes clear while he had faith in the ultimate outcome, he knew any person cannot see even what the immediate future holds. We need faith that the future conscience of society will move towards the incorporation of all people fully into the cultural fold, but we also need the impatience to do something now.

Parker worked to care for the people around him, but he also worked hard to persuade the broader society and bring them to his side. But Parker did not live to see the end of slavery, though his writing helped push the country to that point. He died in 1860. "My eye reaches but little ways."

I wanted to mention that, because for many of us, this week is going to be an incredibly discouraging time. But history is going to be kind to President Obama. Americans will place Obama clearly in the upper echelon of leaders our country. An ethical man fully engaged in the important questions of his day, but aware of the limitations of any moment, or any presidency.

The election of any single person to the presidency is incredibly improbable, but Obama's presidential improbability was imbued by his transcendence of a racial barrier many, many Americans thought they would never live to see. Obama is a hero because he lived the quintessential American Dream. He was a person of humble beginnings who worked his way to the top. But he's also a hero for giving so many people in this country hope, and a sense of validation. Finally, the country is open enough to give a broader swath of Americans a chance to lead. Finally, thank god. Much of the country filled with pride during his election, and he lived up to the expectations placed on his shoulders.

But Obama was a good president as well. He was incredibly consistent. He was ethical. And his policies and leadership helped the country emerge from a devastating recession and achieve an historic level of stability. Many Americans credit the Affordable Care Act with literally saving their lives. And if not their lives, then their home, their own financial situation, their family's ability to take care of itself. Perhaps one of the faults of his presidency has been his reluctance to point to, celebrate, and defend his own achievements.

Social media and Obama's presidency coincided. History should see him first as the master of the medium, but in the end as its victim. A tool he used to win an improbable first presidential primary eventually spawned an industry of disinformation. He's endured 8 years of constant politically or racially motivated fabrications, including most famously by his successor. The tragedy of our time was the media's obsession with treating "controversial statements" by celebrities as deserving of so much of our attention. In today's environment Parker's moral clarity would have been ignored for the few clicks it generated.

But Obama came through it with his dignity and character intact. He should be more a hero now than he was the day he was elected. All people are flawed - but aside from leading a country during war, what more of a president can we ask for than was asked of Obama? He came to St. Louis in 2008 during the campaign, and after the rally my wife was able to shake his hand on the rope line. I wish I could shake his hand now.

So, from one American to another: Thank you. The possibilities of this country are open to more people than they were 8 years ago. I have no doubt, in the long run, the arc of this country's opinion of Barack Obama will bend towards appreciation. Actually - I don't think it will take long at all.

My Hopes for the Next Mayor

When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.
— President Lyndon Johnson

The next mayor will assume leadership of a City with a long list of challenges, but without a magic wand. The frustration of any St. Louis mayor is many of the challenges St. Louis faces are bigger than the City. They are regional problems, but our region lacks any regional level of government to tackle them. That said, there are things that the mayor can do. Things within reach that will make local government more effective, useful, and less frustrating for residents. The next mayor should start by going back to the basics and focus on managing St. Louis government.

St. Louis enters a new phase with an uncertain relationship to state government. Republicans can now enact any measure they see fit without the check of a governor's veto. The next mayor of St. Louis needs to forge a strong relationship with the mayor of Kansas City in order to work to preserve essential revenue sources for the state's two major cities. First of all, both need to make a forceful argument for retaining the earnings tax is. If the state moves to eliminate the earnings tax for St. Louis and Kansas City, we'll end up with the two largest cities in bankruptcy, which will be a disaster for the entire state. The next mayor needs to be clear: There is no alternative to the earnings tax that will keep Kansas City and St. Louis solvent.

The next mayor should reform the way the City plans and delivers public works projects. In most places the local Public Works or Transportation Departments have primary responsibility for planning and managing projects ranging from park improvements to paving. In St. Louis aldermen continue to play an outsized role not just in budgeting for projects, but in originating what improvements are made. 28 individual anemic planning processes don't serve residents well. We need our Public Works and Streets Departments to take a larger role in identifying, planning, and explaining what projects we're doing and why. Rather than a long list of examples, here's just one: We don't even know which streets we're repaving next year. There's no list. Its public works malpractice.

Police Department: At this point its no secret morale within the Police Dept. is low, and we're struggling to recruit, hire, and retain an adequate number of police officers. Current officers are overworked, working too many overtime hours, and responding to too many calls because there's simply too much work for the number of officers that are employed. The area I frequently point to is homicide detectives. We probably need 50% more people working in that position. Given our homicide rate, you'd think we would have prioritized that. We haven't. Its time we did. We will likely need more revenue to pay for the number of police officers we need - but what other choice do we have?

We need an Apollo Mission-like focus on crime. You can't correct a problem until you admit its there. For years leadership chose to minimize the enormous public safety problem in St. Louis. That choice meant we have spent years NOT prioritizing improving safety and reducing crime. From allowing people to get a busy signal when they dial 911, to losing connections to witnesses and informants in neighborhoods, to never developing a city-wide camera program, we've just done maintenance on the problem. If the region can raise over $200 million in private contributions for the Arch Grounds and Museum, we could also focus the charitable community on crime prevention. We have to. While we've built two world-class parks (Forest Park and the Gateway Arch), city services and public safety have become worse just a few miles away. We have to change that.

Traffic Safety: In the 10 years that the Mayor refused to allow a policy that would permit things like raised crosswalks and speed tables to be installed in St. Louis, Chicago installed 10,000, and residents want more. In the same time alderman in St. Louis received about 1,000,000 complaints about cars speeding through neighborhoods. Residents are sick of speeding. They see it for what it is, a dangerous habit that makes kids less safe and neighborhoods less livable. The next mayor should get serious about slowing people down. We'll never have enough police to do it, we need to build traffic calming that gets the job done.

City's fiscal situation: There are few cities swimming in cash, and the tendency is for people to think the financial situation is bad everywhere. In St. Louis our financial situation has taken a marked turn for the worse the last five years. Our credit rating has fallen. Our cash reserves are too low. We have enormous unfunded liabilities, we can't pay certain categories of job enough to adequately recruit (like police officers) and our population continues to decline (albeit at a much reduced rate) so the longer term outlook for our tax base is unsteady. A municipal bankruptcy in St. Louis would be chaotic and catastrophic. The next mayor needs to guard revenue sources, spend strategically, and invest in salaries and equipment for essential services like the Police Department and Refuse. We need to be especially conservative about adding new long-term liabilities (ahem, City-owned soccer stadiums) that cost more than they deliver in tax revenue.

While the Mayor's Office has only limited influence over the City's school system, they do have more influence over charter schools. What parents are looking for is continuity throughout the system. Charters that only serve a limited number of grades are not making the impact they could. The same is true for many families in the SLPS system. The transitions from elementary to middle school, and middle to high school are more uncertain than they could be. There is much more choice in the system than a decade ago, but parents also want predictability and continuity over the course of a student's school career.

Finally, we need to intentionally refocus on neighborhoods outside the central corridor. We need to improve livability for residents, north and south, living in what I call the "normal" neighborhoods of St. Louis. Neighborhoods that are primarily single family and two family, that are relatively stable, and are not experiencing dramatic changes or large developments like in the central corridor. The central corridor has simply eaten up way more brain-power in City Hall than Holly Hills has, for instance. We need to think more clearly about what a resident's experience with local government is, and how to improve service. We are not succeeding as a city if we have a great Gateway Arch for tourists, but residents aren't getting their trash picked up. There are no shortage of ideas on how to do this - and many of them cost almost nothing. They are simply about thinking about the experience of living in St. Louis from a resident's perspective, and devoting people to working to improve that. What I've seen, first hand, is too frequently that isn't the case today. While we can't abandon efforts at redevelopment, we need to constantly remind the next mayor that the people living here today must be the number one priority. If we are a great place for current residents to live, we don't have to worry about attracting new people, it will happen naturally. To whoever wins, good luck!

Mary Pat Carl for Circuit Attorney

On August 2nd, St. Louis will elect a new Circuit Attorney, to succeed Jennifer Joyce, who has served in the office for 16 years. The Circuit Attorney is the City’s head prosecutor for serious crimes.

Four candidates are running. They all have careers dedicated to public service and each has their strengths. This endorsement isn’t meant to take anything away from any of them. From my perspective, Mary Pat Carl is the best choice for the office.

Prosecutor is perhaps the most difficult job in local government. The office interacts with both perpetrators and victims of the most violent crimes. The stakes are high for both. The City's top prosecutor needs a deep ethical commitment to using the power of the office fairly, which I know she has.

The City’s Circuit Attorney needs to be able to recruit, retain, and manage a quality team of attorneys to prosecute violent offenders while helping victims and their families seek a degree of justice after a crime. The CA also needs to be able to communicate with the public about what the office does and why it can or can’t prosecute a case.

Mary Pat Carl simply has, by far, the most prosecutorial experience of any candidate in the race. She’s prosecuted more cases, including homicides and crimes against children, than the other candidates. She’s been involved with more families of victims, and more witnesses to violent crimes. She’s also managed other prosecutors, a key component of the job, which the other candidates haven’t done. I’ve seen her at work, and I can testify that she does a good job.

Earlier this year, she was the lead prosecutor in the homicide of Scott Knopfel, a Clifton Heights resident. Beyond the courtroom, she was a resource to his family and professional when dealing with the media. Those are key components to the role of Circuit Attorney.

Sadly, St. Louis is in the midst of an increase in violent crimes. Its a difficult time to be a prosecutor. The challenge of finding willing witnesses, and sometimes, keeping them safe, is of paramount importance to being able to prosecute people who maim and kill others in our city. Ms. Carl instituted homicide prosecutors responding to the scene after a murder, in an effort to reach witnesses that may not be willing to speak to the police. I know she takes seriously the idea that we need to do much more to help witnesses interact with both the police and the prosecutor's office. If she is Circuit Attorney, I know we’ll see more efforts to make the office more visible and accessible within the community.

People I know who’ve worked closely with her over the years tell me she’s ready for the job on day one. I agree. I’ll be voting for her on August 2nd.

 Prosecutor Mary Pat Carl. Image via www.stlpublicradio.org

Prosecutor Mary Pat Carl. Image via www.stlpublicradio.org

 

 

St. Louis Needs Campaign Contribution Limits

With the demise of campaign contribution limits in Missouri law in 2008, contribution limits in local elections also disappeared. Eight years later nothing has changed, and unlimited contributions continue to be allowed in local elections in St. Louis. Despite the fact that large donors distort local elections, and can easily drown out the voices of regular voters, St. Louis currently stands virtually alone among cities by not capping what an individual or corporation can contribute.

The result is an “anything goes” scenario, where a single donor, or handful of donors, can potentially tilt the playing field in any election. Many St. Louisans are surprised to learn there are no limits to how much can be contributed to a candidate in a local election. While running a campaign takes money, St. Louis residents want common sense limits that encourage candidates to rely on a broad base of support, not a single donor.

There is no question that huge donations to politicians erode the confidence of residents that local government is looking out for their best interests, and alienate regular people from participating in local elections.

Kansas City was quick to enact contribution limits in 2010 after state level limits were repealed, and it’s worked. Today’s proposal allows candidates to raise sufficient money to run a campaign, while also enacting reasonable, common sense limits. The proposed limits are $10,000 per election cycle for all city office holders.

Additional legislation would remove political lobbyists from the floor of the Board of Aldermen chambers during meetings. Regardless of how the custom of allowing lobbyists such close proximity to aldermen during meetings developed, it’s time to change it. Other bodies, like the Missouri House and Senate, and the St. Louis County Council, keep lobbyists away from the desks of members.

It’s time for St. Louis to follow suit. Our customs are reflections of our institutional values. Today, our custom keeps lobbyists closest to members of the Board of Aldermen, while regular voters watch from a gallery. Can this policy be defended? While every voice is important in local government, and lobbyists certainly have a role in representing groups, there’s no reason paid lobbyists should be front and center at every meeting of the Board of Aldermen.

Taken together, these measures will help build confidence in local government.

River Des Peres Trail Extension Plan

Great Rivers Greenway plans to build an extension of the River Des Peres Trail from the current limit at the Shrewsbury MetroLink station north into the 24th ward ending at Slay Park. Construction will begin in early 2017. The trail will be built along the west side of Ellendale and Wabash Ave. The $3 million project is paid for by a combination of Great Rivers Greenway and federal transportation funding. The trail will safely connect our neighborhoods to the full River Des Peres Trail and Grant's Trail network, and a future Deer Creek Trail connection. Full information about the project is available here.