St. Louis holds onto its old things -- including the 1914 city charter

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At the end of a recent wedding reception in St. Louis' City Hall rotunda -- yes, it's rented for such occasions -- a man from northern Illinois approached a bartender. "Gee, this is a magnificent building," the tuxedoed member of the wedding party said, gazing overhead. "Too bad they don't use it for anything." Informed that it isn't a mothballed derelict building and hasn't been turned into a museum of how city government used to be, the visitor was incredulous: "Yeah, I know it was City Hall, but they moved all the government offices out, right?" Well, no. Maybe in the Land of Lincoln's Bloomington, or Kankakee, you won't see such an old building in use. But in St. Louis, just because it looks like something out of another century doesn't mean it's been abandoned.

Take the city charter, for instance. Please. The current charter was adopted in 1914, and there's a move afoot to change it. The push started three years ago when a group -- which included former mayors -- began discussing how to streamline city government. The group produced what has been dubbed the Walker Report, named for George "Bert" Walker III, chairman of the Stifel Nicolaus investment firm and now head of Citizens for Home Rule. The group is about to propose enabling legislation in the upcoming session in Jefferson City to allow a statewide referendum. Last week, the group released the results of a 30-question survey, posed to 616 city and county voters, in which 75 percent of respondents supported the Legislature's approving a home-rule resolution for the city.

Though this all sounds very high and mighty, who could be against home rule? Who doesn't want to reform City Hall? Well, the elected officials who perform "county" functions in the city appear to be lining up against the enabling legislation. Sharon Quigley Carpenter, the city's recorder of deeds, is against it because, she says, it is "being improperly presented." Carpenter says that what's wrong with City Hall isn't found in its county offices.

"My issue is with a group of people who even at their public meetings stand there and say they have no plan. But every time they are interviewed, they discuss the "weak mayor,' which I don't agree with," says Carpenter, who sees this bill as a Trojan horse that could lead to a push on the part of the "home rulers" for the Walker Report recommendations -- that the mayor have more power and that the county offices be appointed, not elected, posts.

George D. Wendel, urban specialist at St. Louis University, is a bit world-weary when confronted with such fears. "The Walker Report is on the shelf. It's not our agenda. It's gathering dust up there," says Wendel. "If we give people the right to home rule, I may myself reach up and shake the dust off it and say, "Well, here's an agenda you can consider.'" Per usual, Wendel describes the city as being "in a precarious state. It's still losing population; it's having real problems increasing its revenue flow." Such problems as where to find $5 million a year for ConnectCare (the city's feeble effort at health care for the poor) will not go away. The Walker Report supports a "strong mayor" form of government so that the mayor can make things happen more quickly. The current setup is a "hopelessly weak mayoral form," says Wendel, and was constructed that way in 1914 to put "all the emphasis on slowing things down" and curtailing corruption in Room 200.

Giving the mayor more power isn't necessarily a good thing, says Carpenter, citing the troubles during Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.'s administration. "It wasn't all that long ago that if we had this appointment authority, it might not have been Midnite Basketball -- it could have been the "Midnite Collector of Revenue' as the issue."

But the road to Damascus is long and full of twists and turns. Even if the home-rule proposal makes it through the Legislature and is approved by state voters, the next step likely is a yearlong commission to draft a specific plan to be presented to the city's voters. So any talk of the city losing its peculiar city-county identity and becoming just another city in St. Louis County, or disincorporating and becoming an urbanized county of its own -- all that's close to science fiction. And none of this talk involves any direct effort to affect the city's schools or police. Gee, wonder whether they have these problems in Rockford?

Give us your feedback by e-mailing "Short Cuts" at [email protected], faxing 314-615-6716 or calling 314-615-6711.

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