Could the mayor's uncanny habit of making enemies wreck the charter-reform effort?

Bert Walker is shuffling off to Budapest -- and not a moment too soon.

Compared to the political struggle that's about to unfold in his hometown, European diplomacy may look like a summer weekend at Kennebunkport to the newest U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

For nearly ten years, Walker -- former head of an investment firm and cousin of former President George H.W. Bush -- has led the fight to change the St. Louis city charter and modernize municipal operations. Because of his hard work, the reform effort -- which is expected to reach the city ballot box in November 2004 -- has won broad support from many major civic and business organizations.

Jay Bevenour
Mayor Francis Slay says his job would be easier "if I did not have to go to another board to make a decision"
Gretchen Saller Poag
Mayor Francis Slay says his job would be easier "if I did not have to go to another board to make a decision"

And yet, even as Walker packs his bags, the charter-reform effort is at risk of unraveling, a potential casualty of the city's internecine politics -- politics that have become more combative and polarized thanks, in no small part, to a combative and quarrelsome mayoral office.

Since taking office in April 2001, Mayor Francis Slay has angered many constituents, especially those in the city's African-American majority, with a number of controversial moves. He's pushed through an aldermanic redistricting plan, shifted the city's minority-business certification program to the airport and backed a school-board majority that's turned management of the system over to a private firm.

Now, the white mayor's simmering feud with the city's top black elected official, Comptroller Darlene Green, is threatening to boil over. For months, the mayor's and the comptroller's staffs have engaged in one-upmanship -- mostly sniping over credit for minor accomplishments. Green, a rather mild-mannered politician who carefully parses her words and tends to avoid controversy, appears to have reached her limit.

In a recent interview with the Riverfront Times, Green expressed strong reservations about charter reform and said giving the mayor more authority over city finances could lead to mismanagement and disaster comparable to recent business implosions, including the collapse of Houston-based Enron Corporation in 2001.

Green's views aren't necessarily widely held, but her emergence as a likely opponent of charter reform seems like another opportunity lost, even as supporters try to build a broad bi-racial coalition. Given that any proposed charter changes will give the mayor's office more power, St. Louisans like Green who are unhappy with the current occupant of Room 200 of City Hall are likely to vote no, says Lana Stein, chairman of political science at UM-St. Louis and author of St. Louis Politics: The Triumph of Tradition.

Though it took five years of lobbying, the easy part -- getting the Missouri General Assembly to pass enabling legislation that ultimately gives St. Louis voters the right to change their charter -- is over. All four living ex-mayors, two black and two white, support reform. Advance St. Louis, the non-profit group formed to promote the campaign, has hired former alderman and ex-deputy mayor Mike Jones as its chairman. Even former Comptroller Virvus Jones (no relation to Mike Jones) believes charter reform is needed. Efforts have been made to solicit more African-American involvement and backing.

But the coming storm that Bert Walker leaves behind could destroy the attempt to modernize the 89-year-old charter if enough people are suspicious of the motives and goals of the campaign.

And Francis Slay, the man who could profit most from charter changes, can't seem to keep himself or his staff from antagonizing the forces that could block those changes.

Charter reform, for good or for ill, is seen by many of its supporters as City Hall reform. Some view the effort as a way of not only shedding the 1914 charter, but fixing some of the problems that go back to 1876 when the city divorced itself from the county and achieved the peculiar and unique status in Missouri of a city that is not located within a county.

The dual status the city has endured -- not being a county but having to provide county functions like sheriff, circuit clerk and treasurer -- presents problems to mayors even in the best of times. As the best of times for the city faded, the charter was seen as yet another archaic burden to a city that has lost 57 percent of its population since 1950. Many argued that the city needed to respond quickly to stem economic decline -- and that meant making government more efficient by vesting more power in the city's chief executive officer.

To that end, a charter reform report was written in 1996 by St. Louis University professors George Wendel (who died in 2000) and Robert Cropf. The report suggested a blueprint for consolidating county offices, increasing the authority of the mayor and abolishing the Board of Estimate & Apportionment, the budget-approving body made up of the mayor, the comptroller and the aldermanic president. An office of city auditor would be established, but its powers would be less than those of the current comptroller.

The general theme was to take a city government filled with redundant components -- offices that confuse consumers and don't adapt quickly to changing times -- and streamline it, making it more user- and business-friendly. That was the theory, but that approach has to navigate the political terrain to become reality.

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