Ward Feelers

Is it time to put aldermen on the chopping block?

Mayoral campaigns and cheap talk go together like rum and Coca-Cola. Yet when the three front-running candidates say something as politically unusual as it's time to reduce the number of the Board of Aldermen, there may just be some substance beneath all the stylin' going on.

Of course, one of the three skates gingerly on this political thin ice. The other two, however, have a simple, direct answer to the question "Should the city's legislative body have fewer than 28 aldermen?"

"Yes," says Francis G. Slay, who for the last six years has been president of the board. "We don't need 28 aldermen. By reducing the Board of Aldermen, there could be some efficiencies there. We can do things more efficiently with a lot fewer aldermen."

Former (and would-be future) Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.: "You've got wards so small you've got an alderman that's held hostage by a block unit."
Jennifer Silverberg
Former (and would-be future) Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.: "You've got wards so small you've got an alderman that's held hostage by a block unit."
Former (and would-be future) Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.: "You've got wards so small you've got an alderman that's held hostage by a block unit."
Jennifer Silverberg
Former (and would-be future) Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.: "You've got wards so small you've got an alderman that's held hostage by a block unit."

Yeah, that's a declarative sentence, expressing an opinion that Slay wasnt widely known to hold until now. Could this be, dare we say it, a politically opportune response to a live-grenade question? He is, after all, running for mayor, and dissing the board may play well to the groundlings out there who vote on March 6. But, as with most things Slay says, he maintains eye contact and appears to mean what he's saying.

"After this last census comes out, we'll see how many people the city has lost," says Slay. "In order to do it, to make it more palatable, you need to draw the wards so that people feel comfortable. Some people are going to have to lose jobs, but this isn't about who's on the board; this is about government and what's best for the city."

Freeman Bosley Jr., the former mayor whose father, Freeman Bosley Sr., is 3rd Ward alderman, is big on structural reform and says the city could survive with fewer aldermen.

"I think there's too many, yeah," says Bosley. "In '54, when I was born, we had 850,000 people, and we had 28 members of the Board of Aldermen. Now we've got 330,000, and we've got 28 members of the Board of Aldermen.

"I've talked to my father about this. I think we've got some people on the Board of Aldermen that would be happy being an alderman of a block. You hear what I'm saying? We got to do something. We got to make some changes."

Bosley's most tangible achievement as mayor was the passage of a half-cent sales-tax increase. As the city's first African-American mayor, he was able to convince North St. Louis voters that they wouldn't be left out of the equation, and his decision to dole out half of the revenue 28 ways, to each alderman, guaranteed aldermanic support. But even Bosley knows that when the pie is sliced 28 ways, nobody gets a full meal.

"The larger pool of money that an alderman has to administer in his or her ward, the greater impact he or she can have in terms of what happens in the ward," says Bosley. "Now you've got wards so small you've got an alderman that's held hostage by a block unit or by a neighborhood group, so, in fear of getting at cross-purposes with a particular constituency, we suffer in terms of the quality of leadership that we get."

Mayor Clarence Harmon isn't as blunt as Slay or Bosley when it comes to addressing what would amount to aldermanic layoffs. When first posed the question, he comes back with a classic "I'm in favor of looking at discussing the possibility." Say what? On further questioning, he says the issue should be addressed when the home-rule bill passes in Jefferson City. Before that happens, aldermanic redistricting will take place, later this year. "It's going to be readily apparent when the census is taken that to have 28 members for a population at or below 330,000 people, they're going to have to draw their boundaries in such a way to capture the voting strength that they currently have [that] it's going to look bizarre at best," says Harmon.

Whatever the mayor thinks and whoever the next mayor will be, reducing the number of the Board of Aldermen is a municipal issue, not a county issue, and it can be done without any enabling home-rule legislation out of Jefferson City. Ald. Fred Heitert (R-12th) knows this all too well. Back in 1982, Heitert, the city's only Republican alderman, led his own Charge of the Light Brigade to get an initiative petition on the ballot to reduce the Board of Aldermen to 15 members. It needed 60 percent of the vote to pass; it received 43 percent. Heitert and two other Republican committeemen went $10,000 into debt to get the necessary 30,000 signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.

"I tried. I really tried," says Heitert. "It was very expensive. It was a good education."

Heitert couldn't get any financial support from corporate sources: "Downtown St. Louis?" Heitert shakes his head. "They basically said, "Whatever the issue is, win or lose, we're still dealing with the majority party. Why do I need to support it or not support it? So, thanks, have a nice day.'"

Elected in 1979, Heitert has been an alderman longer than anyone on the board. He still favors reducing the number of his colleagues. "I think it would be worth the hassle, but where do you get the money?" Heitert asks, already knowing the answer. Heitert is outnumbered 27-1 by Democrats on the board. "I don't care if the board's all-Democrat or all-Republican," he says. "If you're a businessman, you're not going to want to offend the party in power, so you're not going to support an issue that's going to offend them."

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