City Limits

A coalition of St. Louis mayors looking to change the city's charter finds the going rough

If those who wanted to reform St. Louis city government thought it was going to be easy, they thought wrong.

Three former St. Louis mayors, along with current Mayor Clarence Harmon or his top aide Mike Jones, have been meeting for more than a year in an attempt to hash out a way to improve city government ("Solving St. Louis," RFT, July 1). They decided that the first step would be to make it easier to change the city's 1914 charter. The newly named "Mayors Committee for a Better St. Louis" held a coming-out hearing on Nov. 16 to explain the proposal for city and state elected officials. The idea received less-than-a warm reception.

Worse still was a crucial error in a three-sentence paragraph in a Jerry Berger column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two days later that encapsulated the worst fears the committee had about how its ideas would be presented by the media. As the first bit of his Wednesday column, under the headline "Bigwigs Get Briefing on Changing City's Status," the Walter Winchell of St. Louis stated that if the committee succeeded in making the city a "home rule" county able to change its own charter, the move "would abolish several city 'county' offices" such as treasurer and sheriff. Actually, the move would only authorize city voters to make any changes to the charter they choose.

Nevertheless, the next day, the holders of the "county" offices in the city -- License Collector Gregg Daly, Revenue Collector Ronald Leggett, Recorder of Deeds Sharon Carpenter, Treasurer Larry Williams and Sheriff James Murphy -- went public to say they were against the initiative.

From there, the damage control was on. Just before Thanksgiving, Harmon met with the "city-county" elected officials to assure them he didn't intend to do away with them or their offices. Then, on Dec. 2, the Mayors Committee for a Better St. Louis sent a memorandum to members of the city's Board of Aldermen, St. Louis County officeholders and state legislators from the city and county.

In the memo, signed by Harmon and former mayors Freeman Bosley Jr., Vince Schoemehl and James Conway, the committee stated that there was "only one recommendation which we now endorse and urge consideration." That recommendation is to promote a bill in the state Legislature that would allow city voters to amend the city charter without having to pass a statewide constitutional amendment.

That would be accomplished by making St. Louis, which is described in the state's official manual as a "first-class city," a "first-class" county. Currently there are 14 first-class counties in Missouri, ranging from Camden County, population 32,552, to St. Louis County, population 1,003,907. A first-class county has the capacity to change its charter without having to alter the state constitution.

The memo admits that "to make changes in County issues or jurisdiction, action by the state Legislature is necessary. This can be a long and tedious process." The mayors then further stress, in boldface type, that the committee has "not" given consideration to changing the status of county offices in the city and has "not" given the "slightest consideration to matters such as reentry of the City into St. Louis County or merger."

The decision to promote state legislative action is a preliminary one and would not necessarily trigger any other action. If passed, any proposed change in the city charter would be subject to a referendum. Changes in the municipal functions of the charter can be altered in the current setup, but the proposed bill would allow the same dynamic for any change in county functions of city government.

The Mayors Committee for a Better St. Louis is an outgrowth of the Walker Report, completed in 1996 under former Mayor Bosley, The committee, headed by George H. "Bert" Walker, chairman of the Stifel, Nicolaus investment firm, released the report, which was authored by George Wendel and his St. Louis University colleague Robert Cropf.

"There are people like me who believe the city is in much worse financial shape than most people fully comprehend," says Wendel, a political-science professor. "This is just a beginning of coming to grips with that, one way of making some kind of a change that may be helpful."

The report made a variety of recommendations, including giving the mayor control over the police department, giving the aldermen the power to increase as well as reduce the city's budget, and giving the mayor the power to appoint four of the current elected "county offices": treasurer, license collector, collector of revenue and recorder of deeds. The overall goal was to streamline city government and give the mayor more power to turn City Hall around.

"All we're asking for is a home-rule-county amendment; that's all. That's all we're asking for. Nothing can happen that the people themselves don't vote on from that moment forward," says Wendel. "By asking the state Legislature to initiate this amendment, it means we don't go out and gather signatures all across the state in order to put the proposal on the ballot; that's all. If the state Legislature won't do it, that's what we'll do."

The push for a bill in Jefferson City was the first step down that road to reform, and it's a step that many elected officials don't seem to want to take.

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