City Limits

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

"All we want to do is turn on the lights in the gym," says mayoral spokesman John Boul, referring to the committee's support of a bill in Jefferson City. "We aren't even talking about playing a game yet."

But officeholders are suspicious of what sort of game is being anticipated. Their suspicions have led many of them to initially oppose the proposal.

"The problem is, there is a lot of distrust," says Aldermanic President Francis Slay. "Why do we want an open-ended thing? Although members of the group will say they don't have a specific agenda, it's clear if you see the position statement that was written by Stuart Symington Jr., they have a very specific agenda." Symington, a lawyer, is a committee member.

Slay doesn't see City Hall improving by giving the mayor's office more power. "My position is that no one has ever convinced me that by making these county offices appointed by the mayor that it would in any way improve the efficiency of city government," says Slay. "The problems that people have, the one I hear about city government, the vast majority are about departments where the mayor has direct control over them -- Midnite Basketball, the permit process, bureaucratic red tape and trying to get development done through SLDC (St. Louis Development Corp.). You could go on and on and on."

One of the realities of the dual status of St. Louis as city and county is that the city's treasurer -- in this case, Larry Williams -- can do what he wants with parking revenues without the approval of the mayor's office.

Wendel, who is part of the Mayors Committee for a Better St. Louis, sees this as a potential problem for rejuvenating the city: "The county officeholders can do things autonomously without being integrated into the city's development schemes and strategies at a time when the city should be able to count on every kind of cooperation."

Even Slay admits, though he is not critical of Williams personally, that a maverick treasurer could be a problem. "This is nothing against Larry Williams, who has done a great job and he's really handled it well, but it doesn't make any sense to me that the city treasurer should be out purchasing property on his own," says Slay. "I don't disagree with that issue, and I'd tell Larry that."

State Sen. William "Lacy" Clay (D-St. Louis), remembers the difficulties he experienced last session shepherding the bill designed to facilitate the settlement of the St. Louis school-desegregation case. Clay is against the proposed "home-rule" legislation, calling it "disingenuous." He also thinks it will be a tough sell.

"I don't think this community is prepared for change. I don't have the stomach for it," says Clay of what it would take to get such a bill passed. "It's changing the way people are used to government in the city of St. Louis. You're going to get a lot of opposition from St. Louisans. I know how difficult it is to propose change and advocate change in this community, because, let's face it -- St. Louisans like things the way they are and don't necessarily want change."

Clay is also suspicious that an eventual target might be the comptroller's office, an elected position now held by Darlene Green. The comptroller, along with the mayor and the aldermanic president, make up the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which approves the city budget. "I don't think they should be tampering with Darlene Green's office," says Clay. "She serves a separate function from the mayor. She is the chief fiscal officer for this city. I don't think that should come under anyone else. I think she should remain an independent office elected by the public."

As for the political gamble, there are risks. One insider predicts that no mayor, however idealistic, will wage war for long on this front: "The mayor does not want to spend any political capital on this when at the end of the day he's not going to be successful and he's going to make a lot of enemies." Despite that possibility, and despite Harmon's meeting with the city's "county" officeholders, mayoral spokesman Boul reiterates that Harmon is committed to getting a bill through Jefferson City to set the reform process in motion. Boul says Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks (D-St. Louis) was thought to be a possible sponsor, but so far nothing is definite.

One elected city official who supports the committee's proposal is Ald. Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th). With the resignation of Martie Aboussie, the 9th Ward alderman, and the pending retirement of Ald. Robert Ruggeri (D-24th), Shrewsbury and Ald. Kenneth Jones (I-22nd) rank first in seniority. Shrewsbury thinks it's time for "radical" change in city government.

"If we were going to sit down and design a form of government for this metropolitan area, no one in their right mind would design the present system that we have," says Shrewsbury. "No one would design this type of system."

But that doesn't mean there are enough people in their right minds to fix it.

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