Dependent Personality Disorder and the Looming Failure of Political Reform in St. Louis

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Reducing the number of elected representatives in the City of St. Louis is not an end unto itself, it’s a means toward seeking more responsible, more accountable government. As a City of St. Louis resident 27/28 of the Board of Aldermen do not answer to you. An individual outside their ward, almost 307,000 people do not count as a constituent.

If the current number of Aldermen is serving city residents well, how does one explain the current state of the City of St. Louis? Tens of thousands of residents continue to leave every decade, 1 in 5 properties are vacant, murder and violent crime are unacceptably high and the school system is unaccredited. And if Aldermen are not primarily responsible for issues such as these, then why have 28? It’s well past time that the city hit the panic button and try something new. What’s to lose? Another 29K residents?

The issue isn’t only about the dwindling number of residents each Alderman represents, though perversely, the more residents a ward loses, the larger footprint in the city that Alderman controls as a result of redistricting. The system today favors current Aldermen and the larger entrenched political status quo as it severely limits those who may run for the office. The pool of potential candidates for each ward is debilitatingly small. Wards of approximately 12,000 residents struggle to find competent and energetic candidates for office. The salary of ~$37K precludes others from considering running for office, severely limiting competition for the office. Who does the status quo serve? A smaller Board of Aldermen is also about getting the best candidates to run for public office.

Today, no one has effective authority to speak for the larger city. The office of the Mayor is politically weak by design. Aldermanic courtesy, a vacuum in leadership and basic inept governance result in what is in effect 28 municipalities. The fragmented system has meant that Aldermen are answerable to only a very small handful of city residents, as they are often elected with only several hundred votes. This must change, but the Board of Aldermen as a political body is structured to be unresponsive. Just half of the board is up for election each cycle. Optimistically it would take several election cycles to substantially change the composition of the Board. Again, this situation only serves the entrenched interests in our city.

How does an Alderman evaluate the merits of a Tax Increment Financing or Community Improvement District bill or other development issue in another Ward? In reality, they don’t. In St. Louis this is called Aldermanic “courtesy” – a principle that states, I’ll ignore what you do in your ward if you ignore what I do in mine. This, by design, precludes any city-wide conversation, decision, or leadership on issues such as historic preservation, development, tax subsidies, housing, traffic, and other issues. Residents of the city are connected economically, spatially and socially, but not politically.

What is a resident to do if they object to the Board of Aldermen passing a $391M TIF plan for the NorthSide Regeneration effort? The majority of the project is in the city’s 5th Ward. The Alderwoman supports it. Does anyone dedicate themselves to running against their own Alderman who voted to support a massively subsidized project in another ward? No. It’s simply a degree too far removed to engage residents. There’s no shared responsibility.

We ignore that we live in a city, and not just a ward. When 19th Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis recently introduced a bill that would give the owner of the “flying saucer” building in Midtown the option to demolish it, she was genuinely surprised by the opposition that emerged, even asking why other aldermen were suddenly interested in her ward when they had passed similar bills for their ward without objection.

As reported by the Post-Dispatch, Phyllis Young, Alderwoman for downtown, Soulard and Lafayette Square, is set to introduce a bill at Friday’s board meeting that would cut the number of city wards to 12 from 28. The bill currently has 10 co-sponsors (Stephen Conway, Alfred Wessels, Carol Howard, Jennifer Florida, Donna Baringer, Joseph Roddy, Marlene Davis, Scott Ogilvie, Shane Cohn and Lyda Krewson) and requires 15 votes to pass the Board. Current Aldermanic support is heavily weighted toward South St. Louis.

Why has nothing been heard from the majority of Aldermen representing North St. Louis? Do they think that their constituents have been particularly well served by the status quo? Do they imagine themselves as the protector of what’s left, a severely stressed and eroding part of a city, itself in demise? It would appear that Aldermen north and south prefer to fight over what’s left than seek to serve the city as a whole.

St. Louis is a city that should not be held hostage by political machinations or historic grievances. The north-south split serves exactly no one and does nothing to create a better city. Some aldermen are most concerned with hyping efforts to protect their 1/28th of the shrinking city against the other 27 wards. Even often referred to “progressive” representatives bury their heads within their ward boundaries out of political necessity. And even then, very few aldermen can be labeled “progressive”.

As a transplant to St. Louis more than eight years ago, I had no care into which ward I moved. No one does. Not transplants, not businesses, not institutions. That is, until they realize that an Alderman in the City of St. Louis is akin to a feudal lord. In fact, it was probably four years into my life here before I could answer that I lived in the 17th Ward of the City of St. Louis. The first time I heard my Alderman’s name? An elderly woman asked me to vote for him on election day as we passed each other in the hallway. “His father was a good man,” the woman said.

Effective governance is the goal. Why is there no discussion of how other cities operate? Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, Kansas City? Do Aldermen here somehow think that residents of those cities are particularly poorly served? Do trees that fall in those cities simply remain on the ground indefinitely? Do residents wander about in despair with no recourse and idea as to when (and if?) a fallen tree may be removed?

representation by aldermen

Looking at other cities provides a stark contrast. The chart above shows the number of Aldermen in St. Louis if they represented the number of constituents as do elected representatives in each of the listed cities. If St. Louis were San Diego, we would have two Aldermen. Columbus? Five. Charlotte? Six. Chicago? Seven. Pittsburgh? Nine. While there may not be anything inherently superior or inferior to the number of representatives a city has, can anyone say that the status quo in St. Louis has served us well?

And the author of the bill? If and when this effort fails it will be due to ineffective, inarticulate and misguided proponents. The best, perhaps only, argument offered by 7th Ward Alderwoman Phyllis Young was that trimming the Board would save the city perhaps $600,000 per year. And so an opponent of reducing the number of the Board, 23rd Ward Alderman Joe Vaccaro can happily ignore all other issues and attack the rather irrelevant potential cost savings.

When asked “why are you doing this” on a recent St. Louis on the Air program, Young leaned on cost savings and the city budget challenges as a primary justification. She stated that the idea of cutting the size of the board come up again during the city’s budget process. Young then said that the financial savings are a “drop in the bucket” and that the number of proposed wards, 12, was “pulled out of a hat”. She’s the wrong advocate for the proposal.

One can only conclude that the effort to reduce the number of Aldermen in the City of St. Louis is not a serious effort. Where is the research? Where are the arguments to support the initiative? Where’s the groundwork to create a movement to support the idea?

The conversation regarding the number of Wards (and Aldermen) in the City of St. Louis, so far, is based on a completely false premise; that nothing would change other than an increase in the number of constituents per ward.

Nothing changes until the mindset of city of government changes. What’s clear is that the public proponents and opponents of this effort confine themselves to a mental box. During the same St. Louis on the Air segment, 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro remarked incredulously when considering what it would mean to serve a larger ward, “My concerns are, having done the job, that the person who would take my place, I would expect him to do everything I did and in the way that I did it. I just don’t know how possible it would be. I’m sure people would try, but it’s not possible.”

You should listen to the entire segment, but Vaccaro goes on to state:

Let’s just say for instance, if your trash didn’t get picked up today, it was on the route, but for whatever reason they missed it, and this happens. If you call the Citizens Service Bureau because you cannot call the refuse department directly, they will tell you they have 10 days to get back to you. 10 days. It will already be picked up by then. If I call, at least I can talk to the head of the refuse department and he gets someone out there today. I can let them know when that’s going to happen.

The other day 160, roughly, people called me because trees fell down in the neighborhood. They could have called the Citizen Service Bureau and (Alderwoman Young) is right, did I have a chainsaw? No. But I did have the ability to talk to the Forestry Department so that I could tell people, “look, they’re working over on this block, they are going to get this. I was able to let people know in a timely fashion what was going to happen, how it was going to happen, what was going on, what areas they were taking care of.

More from Vaccaro, “(my constituents) rely on being able to call us on the phone and say, ‘Hey, Joe, I have a problem.’ ” In personal relationships this is called dependent personality disorder and is described as a pervasive and excessive need to be taken care of that leads to a submissive and clinging behavior as well as fears of separation. If my Alderman doesn’t call the city and double-check that trash is going to be picked up, who will? This is what is at work against any effort to modify the status quo in St. Louis.

“Why should (residents) have to call the Citizens Service Bureau for instance,” Vaccaro asks. “I give my cell phone number to every person in the ward and encourage them to call me for faster service.” Handing out your phone number is politically smart. Doing so means that the Alderperson becomes the locus of power in a city neighborhood, ensuring their self-defining necessity. At this point, Mr. Vaccaro is doing his best Tom Smykowski. Who? Tom is the Initech employee in the movie Office Space who attempts to justify his job as a go-between to hired consultants.

And Alderman Vaccaro is by just about any measure a sincere, dedicated public servant who works hard to serve his constituents. He is not the problem, but the system he works hard to justify is. If one wasn’t familiar with the particular dysfunction of City of St. Louis governance, you could be excused for thinking this conversation was a parody of real life.

City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen representation

What should be done? The average number of constituents represented by elected officials of city districts in the cities listed above is roughly 66,000. In St. Louis, that would translate to five Aldermen. The City would be divided into five wards. To that, add two representatives elected at-large to give a voice to the city as a whole. Seven Aldermen. They don’t take phone calls about dirty alleys or fallen trees. If they do, they direct residents to the Citizens Service Bureau, an office designed to address such things. They don’t decide to close streets, that’s the City Streets Department. They don’t choose which buildings to permit or demolish. That’s the City Building Division (or the Cultural Resources Office).

Simply reducing the number of Aldermen in and of itself will not create a better city, but thinking like a city, having elected officials responsible for the city (or at the very least much larger portions of it) is undeniably positive. Opponents of reducing the number of Aldermen must be required to explain how the status quo best serves ward residents and the city as a whole.

Of course, it’s an idea that isn’t going to happen. North Side aldermen will raise the specter of racial discrimination. The senior citizens of the South Side will fear entering a new number for a faceless city department into their Jitterbug cell phone, and the newcomers landing in the central corridor will remain blissfully unaware. And then Aldermen will go on air and ask how anyone could possibly do five times the work they currently do. Until the false premise of governance in the City of St. Louis is flipped, until the straightjacket of dependent personality disorder is loosened, nothing will change.

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  • I have sympathy for the burden placed upon aldermen thanks to this culture of dependency, but going a step further to reduce the aldermanic co-dependency issue, why does St. Louis not have a non-emergency 311 number to call for these the little things that seem to occupy so much of their time? 

    Downed trees, open hydrants, nuisance properties, garbage pickup, dogs,…all of these things could be handled much more efficiently through a centralized 311 system that dispatches issues to the most appropriate agency (out of the dozens we seem to have here)

    From a direct cost perspective, it’s not an cheap system, but implementing such a system reduces indirect costs greatly: it provides a centralized means of tracking agency/department workload to better allocate resources, it reduces aldermanic burden, and it reduces burden on the 911 system that often receives non-emergency calls. Residents generally get more reponsive service too. It also saves residents time. If there is a tree down in the middle of street after a storm, I don’t have to figure out who to call. I call 311, they route me to the proper electronic messaging box, and I leave the address of the downed tree. I’ll probably get an immediate response saying it has already been reported and will be taken care of within the next X to Y hours along with something saying if there is a downed power line, to hang up and call 911 immediately. All of this takes roughly a minute and a person on the other end doesn’t need to be bothered with 10 reports of the same tree down in the middle of the road.

    I don’t need my alderman spending 80% of his time sweating the little stuff.  He’s not my concierge or party coordinator, nor do I expect him to act like one for others.  I want him governing the city and working with the community to develop long-term goals and plans for the local area.

    • Michaeljamespowers

      CSB is the city’s 311. They direct complaints to the e appropriate departments.

      • Not really the same thing. M-F 8 to 5. More of a traditional dispatch that needs to be better marketed regardless. Miami is doing a lot more w/ little investment. If the system worked the way a 311 system is designed to work (either through design flaws or lack of marketing), then an alderman shouldn’t be getting roughly 160 calls for downed trees on a single day.

  • Mark

    For the record, I live in the 23rd ward, and I think Joe is an awesome alderman.  I have worked along side him in our neighborhood association to put on events, and he has been extremely helpful in coordinating the 5K race here, various movie nights in the park, etc.  He follows up on resident complaints, helps evict problem residents.  His phone is blowing up every time I see him. Frankly, I would worry if his position were eliminated because in my experience in working with the city, he is the only person who does his job.  

    His $37,000 salary is peanuts compared to other giant sink holes in the budget –e.g., look at the fire fighter/police pensions.  This year alone Mayor Slay stated he is reducing the police staff by 80 officers and is adding an additional $8 million to their budget to cover a pension fund defecit.  Last year the city started charging every residence an additional $120/yr. fee to cover defecits in the fire pension under the guise of a new recylcing program –despite the fact that the recylcing program actually makes them money.  

    Just to be clear, I’m not some heartless jerk; I believe everyone should have the right to a proper reitrement, but under the current regime it is possible for fire fighters to retire in their forties.  Who else do you know that can do that these days?  And now these guys have the audacity to threaten to sue the city?Where is the law that states the school budget should be funded at 100%?  Or that the road budget should always be funded at 100%?  The concept is absurd.Phillis Young is actually one of the alderwomen who voted to create this ridiculous system twenty or more years ago… understand the sentiment here, but frankly, you guys are barking up the wrong tree.  This city has bigger fish to fry in terms of fiscal responsibility, and firing people who make it a better place and advocate for its residents simply isn’t a good idea.To your credit, I’ve never seen an argument so well crafted for eliminating citizen  representation.  By most figures, less representation equals less voice in government. That’s usually not a good thing.

    • Rick

      Mark – you raise good points about the pension system, but that a bit off topic to this thread.  What do you think of the notion of the city of a collection of little villages with barely anyone looking out for the good of the overall city?  the 23rd ward is one of the strongest wards in the city, so from the standpoint of a 23rd ward resident, the system may seem to work well.  But what about for the areas showing significant decline?  

      • Mark

        Rick, thanks for your post.

        I only bring up the pension fund as the point of cost savings was raised in this post. I was merely pointing out that there are easier places to extract cost savings without eliminating jobs.

        You bring up an interesting point about the areas of decline. There would be many solutions to unseat the status quo which don’t involve eliminating jobs, which I consider to be precious resources.  

        I personally hardly ever think eliminating positions is a good idea, that includes in private industry.  I think the incentives are wrong for the existing jobs.  But no one’s talking about that here.

        If it were me, I would advocate for term limits or allowing people who aren’t residents of a ward to run in that ward.  That would probably unseat a lot of aldermen and get some younger blood in.  However, I also doubt either of those proposals would ever become law.  At that point you’re talking about redrafting the city charter.  That’s a pretty drastic measure, don’t you think?

        At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: why is the City of St Louis the way it is today.  Ultimately, if I were to try to reduce it to the Board of Alderman, Mayor Slay, etc., I think we would be looking much too closely.  It didn’t start there, and it surely doesn’t end there either. 

        There’s a negative balance of leadership in pretty much every government.  The only thing that influences it for the better is an educated and engaged populous –who implicitly has the time and resources to be so.  There’s absolutely no substitue for that.  

        • Will Fru

          “If it were me, I would advocate for term limits or allowing people who aren’t residents of a ward to run in that ward.
          The only thing that influences it for the better is an educated and
          engaged populous –who implicitly has the time and resources to be so.”

          You suggest that an educated and engaged populace is necessary, but you also suggest that you’re not part of an engaged populace.

    • Alex Ihnen

      An Alderman shouldn’t be coordinating 5K, movie nights, etc. City elected officials should be concerned with issues of city governance. Then perhaps we wouldn’t be in the pension mess we’re in. Perhaps we would have a city plan newer than 1947. It’s great that Aldermen do all these little things, but it’s a failed/ing structure. We must consider how well the system has served the city and residents, not whether your Alderman is a nice guy, works hard and puts on fun events.

      • Mark

        Alex, firstly, I assure you that Joe does care about issues of city governance.  I doubt he would’ve been on St Louis on the Air if he didn’t.  

        Secondly, these events were organized by the neighborhood assocation, but use city resources, such as the park, generators, etc. 
        This applies to many situations, but many times, citizens don’t know the resources that are available to them.  This comes with the territory with living in a city that has had its population thirded over the past half century.

        This is why Joe comes to our meetings outside of his office hours and lets us know what’s there.  My point is, I don’t think it’s playing politics, misguided, or a waste as you seem to imply. He’s doing his job by talking to residents in what is mainly a residential community.  He also gets an idea of what our concerns are by being there: crime, streets, etc. In general, he’s doing a hell of a lot more for me on his tiny salary than most of the Federal government, which I pay a lot more for.

        On an unrelated note, I’m also sad that St Louis doesn’t have a city plan. But understand, you are advocating firing politicians and more than that eliminating their positions.  I don’t see how that will help draft legislation.  If you’re sad about the status quo, then advocate for term limits.  

        • Alex Ihnen

          The point is that Joe and others are doing their job and doing it well. However, the nature of their job should change. Again, how well has the status quo served the city? That’s great that he can listen to neighborhood concerns about crime, and yet how is the fight against crime going in the city?

          Term limits, in my opinion, are a terrible idea. All one needs to do is follow how that’s worked in many state legislatures. Having fewer Aldermen, and having those focused more on city governance will absolutely make revising a city plan more likely. Can seven elected officials more effectively put together a comprehensive plan than 28? Absolutely. And the best thing is that residents would have a much more clear idea of who to hold accountable and who to replace if needed. Does that happen now? Does any resident blame their Alderman for the city not have a comprehensive plan? Of course not, their Alderman is responsible for 1/28th of the city, they focus on one small area – that’s their job. It shouldn’t be.

          All one needs to do is look at the numbers in the article to see that the St. Louis system is antiquated. That alone wouldn’t justify a change. If the city was prosperous and safe, I’d bet there would be much less of a call for change, but it’s not. The city and its residents are suffering and change is needed.

  • JAE

    Wow. As a newcomer to St Louis I can honestly say it had never occurred to me that Aldermen would be called about things like local garbage collection.

    I’m used to city government like a miniature version of the House of Representatives: they are in charge of governing the city as a whole, with my Alderman my local representative and point of contact if I have comments.

  • StudentoftheCity

    It’s pretty clear, from any real measure of good governance or civic representation, that we have far too many Alderman who have far too little power to move the city forward. The system needs more than just a reduction in their number: but even if you just focused on the Board alone, a number of at-large representatives (say, 5) would help us break the nasty provincialism that stalls city progress in far too many neighborhoods.  The problem in my mind isn’t that 28 is too large a number, but those 28 are incentivized to keep the <2000 who vote in ward elections happy at the expense of the larger city. That's what's ridiculous.

    In my own mental retooling of the system, cutting the number of wards/alderman in half, while adding these at-large representatives, would keep what positive benefits geographic representation affords while installing leaders specifically charged with the city's overall health. Pay the at-large aldermen/councilmen a bit more, and I imagine that your interest in civic leaderships sees a sharp upward spike. 

  • I’d like to see this info laid out over a ward map. It’ll show the problem very quickly — mainly, that failing wards grow bigger and bigger, by nature of the law-of-equal-representation eating up the edges of wards showing even the smallest amount of growth.

    Reducing the number of aldermen won’t change this process, but it will allow every ward to work on both growing/stable neighborhoods and declining ones. Then the task will be the same for each alderman — sustain and strengthen the growing neighborhoods while stabilizing and supporting those within the ward that are not.

  • billings

    Nice article, I’m a fan of your blog.  But out of curiosity, are there other cities who are represented at a lower percentage of population then St. Louis?

    Also, why is it that Aldermen can get an answer from a City department but a citizen can not? 

    • Providence is comparable to St. Louis. Cheyenne has 6600 residents per council member.

      • Alex Ihnen

        I’d argue that those cities are not nearly as comparable to St. Louis as those listed in the article. LA has 15 council members for 3.8M (253K/) and NYC has 51 council members for 8.2M (160K/).

        • Andrew J Faulkner

          Herbie is right in a way. If governance in St. Louis remains as competent and organized as it has been for the past 50 years, then St. Louis will make Cheyanne look downright urban.

          Vince Schoemehl remarked that he kept track of two comparable cities when he was an alderman and mayor in the 70’s and 80’s. Like St. Louis, both were in the economic shadow of a larger city, and both were struggling with industrial collapse. Those cities were Boston and San Francisco. St. Louis has been not only late to the party, but blissfully unaware that there is even a party out there. Our system of government in both city and region is a major contributing factor.

          • Douglas Duckworth

            But fixing potholes creates jobs!