By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Mitch Ryals
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Anne Valente
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.
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.
For starters, after the passage of the statewide amendment in November, drafting a charter reform proposal is the next step. The plan is to present that to voters in November 2004. It needs the approval of 60 percent of city voters to be adopted.
Predictably, the first wave of resistance to charter change came from holders of the offices that serve "county" functions in the city, including Treasurer Larry Williams, Recorder of Deeds Sharon Quigley Carpenter and Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza. They correctly saw the movement to change the charter as a precursor to diminishing, if not eliminating, their offices.
Williams' responsibilities offer a good illustration of how limited the mayor's authority is. As treasurer, Williams collects revenues from the city's parking meters and garages and receives money from fines paid for parking tickets -- revenues the mayor's office doesn't control. His office also has the authority to issue bonds and buy real estate. The mayor has no power to get the treasurer to buy, or not buy, a building.
In recent times, Williams has been described as a shrewd investor, but whatever he does with the city's parking revenues, he does outside the purview of the mayor's office. Williams, the only citywide elected black official other than Green, expressed early doubts about charter reform but recently has been quiet on the issue.
Favazza and Carpenter have been more vocal. Favazza expresses concerns that if his office is put under the supervision of the St. Louis Circuit Court, its $5 million budget, now covered by the state, might become the city's responsibility. Carpenter says she is going to wait and see what the charter proposal is but that she "probably" would not support any move to make her office appointive. Carpenter is the committeewoman of Slay's home base, the vote-heavy 23rd Ward.
Some of the strong opposition to charter reform from county office-holders has dissipated, in part, because some of those elected officials will be ready to retire by the time any change is adopted. Any county office holder will be able to finish out his or her four-year term no matter what charter change is adopted. Williams and Sheriff Jim Murphy are up for re-election in November 2004.
One county office holder in the city says his colleagues know something will happen; they just don't know what it will be yet.
"It's interesting that the county offices have always been the subject of this, but the more you get into it, the more you see other things unraveling," says license collector Greg F. X. Daly. "In that last meeting, people didn't really talk about the county offices, they were more interested in cutting the board of aldermen and having a comptroller who was in tune with the mayor. Nobody knows where this is going to go."
Maybe not, but Darlene Green has heard and seen enough to be concerned and to raise her normally low public profile.
With the rumblings that the Board of E&A might be disbanded and the role of the comptroller diminished, Green has unexpectedly emerged as potentially the strongest opponent to sweeping charter reform.
Sitting behind her desk, talking about charter reform, the demure comptroller doesn't come off as someone in the middle of a City Hall power-struggle. She measures her words carefully, stopping short of drawing a line in the sand on the preservation of the Board of E&A.
Green does make it clear that she thinks the board is needed.
"I think E&A has an important role when it comes to protecting taxpayers' dollars. The comptroller, as an independent, elected official, has served the people well," Green says. "Look what has happened in corporate America with Enron, where the corporate CEO and CFO were in lockstep. You destroyed thousands of lives because of mismanagement."
Green doesn't support the general drift toward giving the mayor more power at the expense of the Board of E&A. She worries that diminishing the power of the comptroller reduces the ability for that office to be a watchdog of city funds.
"The people need to be cautious about that," says Green, who has been comptroller for eight years. "It certainly doesn't seem to be true that if the mayor has more power, the city would run better. I base that on what we've seen so far."
Green says the 1914 charter diluted the mayor's power in order to counteract corruption. "The people were saying we don't want corruption, it's got to stop. Let's not turn back the clock to a time when we had people who could do what they wanted to do with the taxpayers' money without accountability."
Green was virtually drafted into politics when Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., the city's first black mayor, appointed her comptroller in 1995 to take the place of Virvus Jones, who had just pleaded guilty to two charges of federal tax fraud. Since then, she's had a scandal-free tenure, holding office as the city's credit rating was raised five times to an "A" rating. And in the past eight years, Green has learned a few things about politics.
When she was called by the public relations firm trying to spin some positive news coverage out of the current city schools controversy, Green knew enough to stay away. Green says a representative from Fleishman-Hillard asked her if she wanted to "present" her views on the situation to the school board.
"I said, 'Present? Present what?' There had been no discussion with any of the school board members," Green says. She had expected a "sit-down" from someone from the school board or the mayor's office, briefing her on the changes that were planned. There was none. "When I got the call from Fleishman-Hillard, I was surprised and shocked. Then I became sad, saying, 'Well, is this a set-up?'"
If Green publicly opposes the upcoming charter reform, it will be significant because, with the defeat of mayoral candidates Bosley and Clarence Harmon, she is arguably the highest profile black elected official. After defeating Jim Shrewsbury in a special election in '96, Green has been elected citywide twice. She and Williams are the city's only two citywide black elected officials.
Her tiff with Slay pits two politicians with dissimilar backgrounds. Green grew up the eldest of six children in a single-parent home in the Pruitt-Igoe public-housing complex. She went to Vashon High School before receiving a scholarship to Washington University, where she graduated in 1978.
Slay is the second-eldest of eleven children who grew up in a brick bungalow on Scanlan Street in South St. Louis. Slay's father, Francis R. Slay, has been the 23rd Ward committeeman for more than 30 years and served as a state representative and as the city's Recorder of Deeds. Slay graduated from St. Mary's High School, Quincy College and St. Louis University School of Law. He served as 23rd Ward alderman for ten years before being elected aldermanic president in 1995. Slay was elected mayor in 2001.
Green and Slay are similar in that neither seems eager to deal with the media. Much of the friction between the two officials is the product of their staffs. But even though the conflict is below the radar, it is real and could have significant consequences as the city's charter is dissected and reworked this year.
Slay gingerly avoids criticizing Green in public, but he can't help but say his life would be simpler without having to go through both the boards of aldermen and E&A.
"Right now I have to go to two boards to spend money and engage in contracts. The framers of the charter felt that a weaker form of mayor was appropriate. The framers of our state and United States constitutions felt that a stronger chief executive was a better way to go," Slay says. "Yes, it would certainly be easier for me if I did not have to go to another board to make a decision. I'm sure there are people out there who think another step in the process is good."
Slay insists his conflict with Green isn't personal and shouldn't affect proposed changes to the charter.
"Whatever differences we have are issue by issue," Slay says. "To me it has nothing to do with anything else other than a disagreement on an issue. That should have no impact at all, in my view, on charter reform and what position I take or anybody else takes."
Green doesn't quite buy that argument. She suspects that the frequent carping in the press about the comptroller's office might be an effort by the mayor's staff to make Green look like she's part of City Hall's problems.
"I wouldn't put it past them," Green says. "The mayor's office has historically looked at the comptroller's office and tried to say it's obstructionist, stopping the progress of the city bringing in new business and new developers. That's not true."
That a mayor and a comptroller do not get along is not that surprising. The difference is that the timing of this conflict is critical to the nature and extent of City Hall reform.
For Bert Walker, who spent his professional life in the world of private finance and investment, the city's system of "fiscal management" doesn't make much sense.
"Darlene Green is a friend of mine, I like her and I think she is capable," Walker says. "But financially it's not very efficient to have a whole financial organization structured the way it is. I don't just mean Darlene, I mean the license collector and the collector of revenue and treasurer and so forth. They're all disjointed. I do not think that's the hallmark of an efficient city government structure."
And Walker, who stresses that he is speaking as an individual and not as the former chairman of the reform push, is not a supporter of the Board of E&A. "I haven't seen or heard any persuasive argument that the board makes sense," he says.
Conflicts between mayors and comptrollers are historic in St. Louis, the most recent happening after Mayor Vince Schoemehl appointed Virvus Jones comptroller in 1988. In the '70s, Comptroller Raymond Percich and Mayor Jim Conway weren't two people you'd invite to the same poker game. Even back in the '30s, Comptroller Louis Nolte went to court to get the powers of his office defined.
From a political standpoint, taking on the comptroller is not often a wise thing for a mayor to do, particularly if the comptroller is low-key, like John Poelker, John Bass or Paul Berra. Even when there is controversy, it's hard to one-up a comptroller.
One survivor of a past mayor-comptroller conflict of City Hall calls Slay's nagging of Green ill-advised.
"It's stupid. There has not been a mayor who won an argument with a comptroller yet," he says. "Percich whupped Conway's ass. Virvus whupped Vince's ass. If a comptroller is doing their job, they can talk about the money they saved by trying to stop the mayors from fucking up. The comptroller has a better public story."
Virvus Jones admits that he loved being comptroller because on the Board of E&A, he didn't have the same problems the mayor did.
"The only person who has a constituency on that board is the mayor," Jones says. "That was the beauty of why I liked being comptroller: I had no constituency. No one got mad at the comptroller if potholes didn't get fixed, or if crime went up or down, or the streetlights didn't come on."
Most of the Slay-Green brushfires are being covered in brief news articles, in Post-Dispatch gossip columns and in replies to letters-to-the-editor. The topics have included a controversy surrounding a computer consulting contract at Lambert Airport to a company named Bentech, disputes over the sale and leaseback of the convention center, criticism over the early announcement of a sale of a city building to the McGowan Brothers Development Corporation and a disagreement over the extent of budget cuts in the mayor's office.
The airport controversy was treated in the June 7 Jerry Berger column in the Post-Dispatch, a frequent depository of pro-Slay pronouncements. Berger stated that Bentech had decided to drop a lawsuit that accused the city of trying to revoke a contract and award the business to a separate firm, BLL & Associates. According to Berger, depositions in the case showed that "someone in Darlene Green's office had asked the airport to force Bentech to hire BLL or to award BLL a separate contract to monitor Bentech's work."
That brought a blistering letter to the editor signed by John Farrell, public information officer for Green. Farrell wrote that Berger's column contained "outright lies" and said that Berger had not contacted Green's office before printing the item. Farrell stated "the lies leaked from Slay's office -- and the Post-Dispatch's willingness to print them without checking their validity -- are a shameful attempt to hide the culpability of employees within Slay's office."
The punch line came in Farrell's last paragraph. "With home rule and potential city charter changes gaining momentum, it is vital for you, the citizens of the city of St. Louis, and the entire St. Louis region, to be aware that information coming from Slay's office and the Post-Dispatch cannot be trusted," Farrell wrote. "I caution anyone getting information from Slay's office and the Post-Dispatch -- including that on the home rule process -- to question it, and not take it at face value."
What wasn't re-ported by Berger: Depositions taken in the Bentech lawsuit pointed to interference not only from the comptroller's office but from the mayor himself. In the year before Bentech had its contract renewed, the company had lost its certification as a minority firm. In depositions taken as part of the suit, Slay's brother Gerard, who is deputy airport director, stated that Ivy Pinkston of the comptroller's office lobbied against Bentech before the contract was renewed and had encouraged the consideration of BLL. Gerard Slay also said his brother, the mayor, had called to urge him to get the airport commission to yank the Bentech contract.
Neither the Berger item nor the Farrell letter mentioned that BLL is linked to Roberts & Roberts. Michael Roberts' wife, Jeanne, works for BLL. Michael and Steve Roberts are African-American politicians-turned-developers who own Channel 46. Both the Slay and Green camps want to stay on the right side of the wealthy and influential brothers.
The lawsuit was settled, and Bentech was granted one more year at the airport. But the public spat gave rise to a larger, political message: If the mayor's office continues to use the media to put the comptroller in a bad light, the payback might be vocal opposition by the comptroller to charter reform.
Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, is dismissive of Farrell's June 12 letter. "I saw that letter and never understood it," Rainford says. "It was kind of irrational."
And Rainford interprets Green's doubt about charter reform as a defense mechanism to protect her position and power. "There is no doubt there will be people who are not going to like these changes, not because they're not good for the city, but because they're not good for them professionally or individually," Rainford says. "Look at any time you try to make change, whether it's over at the schools, over at the election board [or] MSD [the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District]. Whenever you try to change things, the people who are in power are going to be resistant."
Rainford doesn't buy the notion that changing the charter will weaken safeguards inherent in the current structure and make City Hall worse. "If the people of St. Louis do become interested in changing the government, you're going to see all kinds of resistance and all kinds of phony reasons for not doing it. You're going to see all kinds of straw men set up," Rainford says. "If people want change, you're going to see things brought up and you're going to have people saying things and using scare tactics in order to protect their own personal and professional situation."
A number of City Hall observers blame the tension between the offices of the mayor and comptroller squarely on Slay's staff, including Rainford, a former television journalist with a penchant for sound bites and bluntness that some find abrasive. Slay's staff, the critics say, is obsessed with taking credit, shifting blame and controlling their image in the media.
"They're absolute, complete control freaks," says one longtime City Hall politician. Slay's staff, he says, worry more about those in Green's office than about the comptroller herself.
"It's not so much a fear of Darlene, it's a fear of Darlene's staff," he adds. "The staff is a source of information and a source of power that's part of city government that the mayor's office can't control. They come into conflict with anyone who has a sphere of influence they can't control."
One example of the mayor's grab for control was his idea last year to move the city's Information Technology Services away from Board of E&A's control and have it report to the mayor's office. The move was promoted as a way to upgrade the city's computer network, but part of the initial proposal also shifted all public information officers in city offices into the new, mayor-controlled department. Initially, Slay planned to present his proposal to the Board of E&A, but when it was clear that Shrewsbury and Green didn't support it, Slay went to the board of aldermen.
The board of aldermen eventually approved a watered-down version of the bill, but due largely to Green's opposition, the Board of E&A appoints the reorganized department's director. The position is a civil service job and not under the mayor's control. The public information officers stayed where they were.
There was more friction when Green proposed a leveraged lease of America's Center, the city's convention center. On November 23, Jerry Berger reported that Green had a plan to "pay an outside consultant millions of dollars" to handle the transaction. Berger stated that Green wanted to hire a "battalion of consultants to devise a lend-lease scheme" that would net the consultants "up to $10 million." Rainford was quoted as saying the fees were "way too high and unfair to taxpayers." There was a dispute over fees, but PaineWebber's highest bid included a $2.5 million fee. Eventually it was reduced to $1.75 million in a deal that could net the city up to $15 million.
Slay's staff got another boost in Berger's column on February 23 in an item headlined "Fur to fly." Berger reported that Rainford's "next penny-pitching cutback at City Hall, says flack Ed Rhode, is to examine logs of cars from the city's motor pool. Rainford's curiosity in the matter was piqued the other day, when he spotted a senior city employee, swathed in a fur coat, sweeping out the public building's front steps and being driven off in a city car." Elaine Spearman, Green's chief of staff, wears fur coats -- so many readers and most city employees were able to conclude that she was the "senior city employee" Berger referenced.
A month later, as the city's budget problems surfaced, Berger again offered a platform for the mayor. On March 19, the gossip columnist reported that all employees in the mayor's office would be furloughed for two weeks and some would have 6 percent pay cuts. Slay's office was going to slash 14 percent of its budget. "We are requiring all city departments under the mayor's control to try to do at least as much work, but with fewer employees, as last year," Rainford was quoted in the Berger column. "We can only request the patronage offices and Comptroller Darlene Green to do the same."
Shortly after that report, fliers circulated throughout City Hall claiming that Slay had shifted several employees to different city departments to make it look as though he had cut his staff's budget. A Post-Dispatch article by City Hall reporter Doug Moore on June 22 recounted the controversy and four days later a correction was published that stated the "graphic and story incorrectly characterized some of the budget cuts" in the mayor's office. On the same day that the correction was published, Slay sent a letter to city employees saying charges in the article were "not true."
Green says the mayor's office had "no real intention of cutting" its staff budget, that most of the staff cuts he claims were the result of "maneuvering, moving, baiting-and-switching" of employees. "It was basically smoke and mirrors," Green says.
Earlier in June, Slay's office went out of its way to criticize Green for a press release her office sent out about the sale of a city-owned property at 1300 Convention Plaza to McGowan Brothers. The press release was self-serving -- nothing unusual for most public officials.
Five days later, Rainford was quoted in a Post-Dispatch article saying Green's announcement was premature because the sale had not yet been approved by aldermen. "For her to say, 'It's sold, hip, hip hooray and I got $1 million' and she hasn't even advised [the board] is probably an error on her part," Rainford was quoted as saying. A day after the publication of that article, Slay voted at a Board of E&A meeting to approve the sale. In July, the aldermanic Ways and Means Committee unanimously approved the sale, and, a week later, the full board passed the bill authorizing the sale. Green's deal with the McGowans had met with no opposition at City Hall -- making some observers wonder why the mayor's chief of staff was quick to publicly criticize her.
Freeman Bosley Jr., who was mayor from 1993 until 1997, doesn't think these ongoing skirmishes between Slay and Green have risen to the level of being a major concern for those who want city charter reform, but they have that potential. The key, says Bosley, is not to let who is holding the office define the office itself.
"If we focus on who is the mayor as opposed to what is it that the mayor ought to be able to do, then we're always going to have problems," Bosley says. "At this point, it hasn't gotten to that level. A lot of this is inside baseball now. But with the school board and other issues playing out publicly, that's going to be a concern. But we've been working on this for over seven years. Some of this stuff is going to come and go but we'll still be around."
To Virvus Jones, the former comptroller, the struggle boils down to power. He thinks the city would be better off without the Board of E&A, even though he relished being on that board when he was a politician. "That's where I was and I used all the power I had. That's what people do when they have power, they use it. It's like all these mayors, none of these mayors when they were in office supported home rule. I'm taking the same hindsight luxury that they're taking."
For Slay, that "hindsight luxury" extends to when he was aldermanic president. In 1998, when he was outside Room 200 looking in, he didn't think giving the mayor more power was such a good idea [D.J. Wilson, "City Limits," December 9, 1998].
"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," Slay said in December '98. "The problems that people have, the ones I hear about in 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 the St. Louis Development Corporation. You could go on and on."
When he was mayor, Clarence Harmon even called a meeting with the county office holders to assure them he was steering clear of charter reform. Since leaving office in 2001 after one term, Harmon has been active in supporting charter change. He doesn't see the need for the Board of E&A. The board of aldermen, Harmon believes, could oversee the mayor's budget.
"We don't need to have a system where you've got to work politics three ways every month to decide issues," Harmon says. "There is as much opportunity for mischief in that process as anything else, because I've been through it. People grandstand, this guy's got a forum, that guy's got a forum, I have to say something to counter that. How that occurs increases the flux and the antipathy among the three members."
Vince Schoemehl, who served as mayor from 1981 until 1993, doesn't have any preconditions about what structural changes he wants from charter reform. Ever the dealmaker, he doesn't necessarily support eliminating the county offices, reducing the number of aldermen or disbanding the Board of E&A. All he wants to do is to reorganize city government and modernize its data so that developers and investors can get what they need in a timely manner.
"The only thing that I want to see happen is see the city get organized in such a way that it can compete in the Information Age," Schoemehl says. "As information technology has become increasingly employed by other taxing jurisdictions to present themselves to the investment community, older cities have become more challenged. St. Louis, because of its structure, is at a rather acute disadvantage."
That Bert Walker, a Republican investment executive, led the charter reform effort early and then handed it off to Mike Jones, an African-American with a political and deal-making background, should surprise no one.
"Two communities will have to work together, the business community and the African-American community," Jones says. "They cannot get a charter referendum passed without the substantial support of the African-American community. You have to make it efficient for business and fair for the African-American community. You miss either part of that, you lose."
African-Americans have good reason to be anxious about how fair the process is, but they also have a stake in rejuvenating city government. "If St. Louis ever gets an African-American mayor again, that mayor will need the tools to meet the expectations of those who elected him."
Jones knows that diversity has to be about race, gender and geography. The 150 "stakeholders" who will be picked to draft the charter proposal need to be the right mix so that the general public buys into the process. A black individual from the Central West End, Jones says, won't have the same worldview as a black individual living in North St. Louis.
And no matter how many former mayors or politicians show up at meetings, the public's level of interest will determine the success of the reform movement.
"It depends how highly engaged the public becomes in this process," Jones says. "As a general rule, elected officials in America at any level are not profiles in courage. Generally speaking, they say, 'There go my people, let me hurry that I might lead them.'"
Virvus Jones, who now is a vice president with Roberts & Roberts and one of the authors of "The Political Eye" column in the St. Louis American, believes opponents of whatever proposal makes it to the ballot in November 2004 will make Slay the issue.
"It's easier to find a bogeyman in the mayor than find fault with streamlining city government, especially when it only affects politicians. The only people who will lose their jobs are elected officials," Jones says. "It could end up being a referendum on Slay. That's the easiest target for the opposition. It's difficult to say we need 28 aldermen in a city that has 348,000 people. It's difficult to say we need all these county office holders for a city that has 348,000 people."
But politics is the art of the possible. Coming up with slick PowerPoint presentations on better government structure won't mean much if the proposal doesn't get 60 percent of the vote next year.
"You would be naïve not to expect that this public engagement process won't bump into political reality," Mike Jones says. "If home rule gets defined as a partisan issue, if it gets perceived by the public as either the enhancement or diminishing of a specific political personality, then I think we've got a problem. Our job is to keep it above that."
Schoemehl believes that if the process is worked thoroughly, the charter reform vote won't turn out to be a referendum on Slay.
"I don't think the proposal will be a referendum on any individual if we do this right," Schoemehl says. The former mayor and current school-board member must have learned something from the fractious attempts at reforming the city school system. "If we have enough community process and enough community buy-in I really don't think it will be a referendum on anybody, none of the former mayors and none of the current officeholders. Making sure there's enough community buy-in will be tricky."
Others aren't so sure supporters can pull it off.
One City Hall lifer says Slay's management style, as exhibited through his chief of staff Rainford, has endangered real charter reform. It makes people wary of giving the mayor's office more power.
"If you've got a mayor that is out taking potshots at people and trying to muscle other officials, whether it's the school superintendent or the comptroller, that could be the kiss of death for charter reform," he says. "People will make the connection of a strong mayor and here we've got one who is trying to be stronger, this will just enshrine the kind of things he's trying to do. People will confuse the personality with the principle and that could be the death of anything like real charter reform."
Rainford isn't worried about his boss or the prospects for reform. "The mayor is very popular. His approval rating is far higher than the 60 percent needed to pass charter changes," the mayor's chief of staff says.
"Francis Slay is going to be mayor for another six or ten years," he adds. "This charter is going to have to last decades."