Yes on Prop R: Why Passing Political Reform is Important to the Future of St. Louis

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*Prop R was passed by voters in the City of St. Louis! The measure needed 77,150 of 128,583 votes cast (60%) and received 79,071, or 61.49%.

On November 6, City residents will have an opportunity to vote in favor of the first substantial political reform in St. Louis in decades. If approved by 60 percent of voters, Prop R would decrease the number of wards, and thus aldermen, from 28 to 14. Wards would be redrawn following the 2020 Census.

The exisiting system has been in place since 1914 when there were approximately 725,000 city residents. The population peaked at more than 856,000 in 1950 and is currently 319,000. Where once an alderperson represented more than 30,000 residents, that number today is near 11,000. Is this a problem in and of itself? Maybe. There's a compelling argument to be made regarding government efficiency and service delivery. But there are larger issues at play that demand reform.

First, examples abound that city government can be run effectively and efficiently. In cities from San Antonio to Boston, locally elected city officials represent 130,000 to 50,000 residents each. St. Louis is an extreme outlier. Somehow trash is picked up, fallen trees are removed and curbs are painted in those cities. To argue that this doesn't matter, would be to argue that the status quo has served St. Louis well. It hasn't. Simply put, as a resident of the City of St. Louis, 27/28 of the city's governing board doesn't represent you.

But the real issue isn't about having fewer aldermen simply for governing efficiency and to (presumably) lower costs. Reducing the size of the Board of Alderman is about who runs the city, who is listened to, who has a say in the future of St. Louis. With just 11,000 constituents and perhaps fewer than half that many registered voters, aldermen serve a very small constituency. With voter turnout low, keep 1,200 people happy and you remain in office. This leads to "aldermanic courtesy" as each alderperson wants to be left alone in their fiefdom and in return pledges to be absent in conversations regarding infrastructure projects, historic preservation and various development issues in the other 27 wards.

As a city resident, how likely are you to be invested in the work of an alderperson who doens't represent you and for whom you cannot vote for or against? With 28 wards, how are you expected to follow what each alderperson does? How is the local press supposed to inform the public on the work of 28 individuals, especially when a tiny fraction of their readership is directly affected?

How likely are you to become a candidate for alderman youself? Not likely, if you're thinking of the future of the city outside your ward. What if your alderman has served since the 1980s? Are you going to take on the challenge? Are you going to move to another ward simply to run for office? The status quo serves those in power by greatly limiting the number of individuals running for office. nextSTL will begin our "28 reasons to shrink the Board of Aldermen" soon, but these are the central issues and why it's imperative that St. Louis begin the process of political reform.
Ballot language:
Shall the Charter of the City of St. Louis be amended in accordance with the Board of Aldermen Amendment Ordinance?
This Amendment restructures of the Board of Aldermen of the City of St. Louis as a body of 14 aldermen representing 14 wards, provides for a transition schedule to implement the restructuring, and other related matters, all as set forth in the "Board of Aldermen Amendment Ordinance," a copy of which is available at polling places.

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STL residents per rep with 14 aldermen
{residents per representative if St. Louis were to have 14 aldermen}

City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen representation
{current residents per representative – 28 aldermen in St. Louis}

representation by aldermen
{number of aldermen if St. Louis employed the resident to representative of the cities shown}

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  • Funny argument. If keeping 1200 people happy gets you reelected, then the solution is to mobilize those unhappy not increase the size of the wards. Presumably, keeping 2000 people happy in a 21k person ward won’t be that much harder. Secondly, if Aldermanic courtesy is a problem, reform how Aldermen are chosen by making half the seats come from at large wards that cover the whole city. Having 14 fiefs is just about as bad as having 28.

    This reform is meaningless save for reducing transactions costs and saving some of the city’s money. But who listens to political scientists when politics is involved.

    • Alex Ihnen

      You’re wrong on several points, but I would happily support at-large seats. For the reasons outlined in the article above, increasing the size of wards would benefit the city by increasing the pool of potential candidates, reducing the influence on entrenched interests and providing an easier to follow governing body for residents and the press alike. The status quo hasn’t worked for St. Louis. If you believe that it has, by all means vote against reform. But while you’re at it, explain how the 1914 system we live with is superior to those of every other major American city.

  • guest

    The second much needed and long overdue major local political reform (which would take immediate effect) is to regain local control over the city’s police department. As a city resident, this issue is far more important to me than the size of the Board of Aldermen.

  • Kevin

    Has there been any talk of how the wards would be redrawn? Would it be according to population? size?


    • Alex Ihnen

      Wards would be redrawn in the same manner as they have been over the past decades – seeking a balance in the number of residents. Assuming 300,000 residents and 14 wards, there would be about 21,000 residents instead of 11,000 today.