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City Limits 

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

If those who wanted to reform St. Louis city government thought it was going to be easy, they thought wrong.

Three former St. Louis mayors, along with current Mayor Clarence Harmon or his top aide Mike Jones, have been meeting for more than a year in an attempt to hash out a way to improve city government ("Solving St. Louis," RFT, July 1). They decided that the first step would be to make it easier to change the city's 1914 charter. The newly named "Mayors Committee for a Better St. Louis" held a coming-out hearing on Nov. 16 to explain the proposal for city and state elected officials. The idea received less-than-a warm reception.

Worse still was a crucial error in a three-sentence paragraph in a Jerry Berger column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two days later that encapsulated the worst fears the committee had about how its ideas would be presented by the media. As the first bit of his Wednesday column, under the headline "Bigwigs Get Briefing on Changing City's Status," the Walter Winchell of St. Louis stated that if the committee succeeded in making the city a "home rule" county able to change its own charter, the move "would abolish several city 'county' offices" such as treasurer and sheriff. Actually, the move would only authorize city voters to make any changes to the charter they choose.

Nevertheless, the next day, the holders of the "county" offices in the city -- License Collector Gregg Daly, Revenue Collector Ronald Leggett, Recorder of Deeds Sharon Carpenter, Treasurer Larry Williams and Sheriff James Murphy -- went public to say they were against the initiative.

From there, the damage control was on. Just before Thanksgiving, Harmon met with the "city-county" elected officials to assure them he didn't intend to do away with them or their offices. Then, on Dec. 2, the Mayors Committee for a Better St. Louis sent a memorandum to members of the city's Board of Aldermen, St. Louis County officeholders and state legislators from the city and county.

In the memo, signed by Harmon and former mayors Freeman Bosley Jr., Vince Schoemehl and James Conway, the committee stated that there was "only one recommendation which we now endorse and urge consideration." That recommendation is to promote a bill in the state Legislature that would allow city voters to amend the city charter without having to pass a statewide constitutional amendment.

That would be accomplished by making St. Louis, which is described in the state's official manual as a "first-class city," a "first-class" county. Currently there are 14 first-class counties in Missouri, ranging from Camden County, population 32,552, to St. Louis County, population 1,003,907. A first-class county has the capacity to change its charter without having to alter the state constitution.

The memo admits that "to make changes in County issues or jurisdiction, action by the state Legislature is necessary. This can be a long and tedious process." The mayors then further stress, in boldface type, that the committee has "not" given consideration to changing the status of county offices in the city and has "not" given the "slightest consideration to matters such as reentry of the City into St. Louis County or merger."

The decision to promote state legislative action is a preliminary one and would not necessarily trigger any other action. If passed, any proposed change in the city charter would be subject to a referendum. Changes in the municipal functions of the charter can be altered in the current setup, but the proposed bill would allow the same dynamic for any change in county functions of city government.

The Mayors Committee for a Better St. Louis is an outgrowth of the Walker Report, completed in 1996 under former Mayor Bosley, The committee, headed by George H. "Bert" Walker, chairman of the Stifel, Nicolaus investment firm, released the report, which was authored by George Wendel and his St. Louis University colleague Robert Cropf.

"There are people like me who believe the city is in much worse financial shape than most people fully comprehend," says Wendel, a political-science professor. "This is just a beginning of coming to grips with that, one way of making some kind of a change that may be helpful."

The report made a variety of recommendations, including giving the mayor control over the police department, giving the aldermen the power to increase as well as reduce the city's budget, and giving the mayor the power to appoint four of the current elected "county offices": treasurer, license collector, collector of revenue and recorder of deeds. The overall goal was to streamline city government and give the mayor more power to turn City Hall around.

"All we're asking for is a home-rule-county amendment; that's all. That's all we're asking for. Nothing can happen that the people themselves don't vote on from that moment forward," says Wendel. "By asking the state Legislature to initiate this amendment, it means we don't go out and gather signatures all across the state in order to put the proposal on the ballot; that's all. If the state Legislature won't do it, that's what we'll do."

The push for a bill in Jefferson City was the first step down that road to reform, and it's a step that many elected officials don't seem to want to take.

"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.

"I think it's going to be nearly impossible," says Shrewsbury. "The only way these type of fiefdoms ever get changed is when there is either a major scandal or when a metropolitan problem gets so bad that people have to rise above politics. The sewer district was an example. All these little municipalities, the county and the city, couldn't manage their own sewer systems, so in the late 1950s and early 1960s you needed a Metropolitan Sewer District -- not because the politicians wanted it; it was because the realities dictated it."

Even if people generally want governmental reform, change is hard to come by.

"It's like aldermanic-ward reduction on the ballot on 1983," Shrewsbury recalls. "Most people supported it, but it was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters. It's the sort of issue that people who are opposed to it will move heaven and hell to defeat it, whereas people who support it probably have something else to do on election day.

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