Summary of City-County Reorganization Attempts According to Fragmented by Design by E. Terrence Jones

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{St. Louis County 1875}

This summary of the secession of St Louis City from St Louis County and the reunification attempts comes from Fragmented by Design by E. Terrance Jones, a must read for anyone concerned about this issue.

1875-76 To hell with you rubes
An amended constitution allowed for separation of St Louis City from St Louis County and a locally-written home-rule charter for the City of St Louis

  • Proponents: City business and land-owning elite tired of meddling by the state and county. They wanted to get richer. They promoted lower taxes and enhanced checks and balances to voters.
  • Opponents: City and County elected officials. They wanted the status quo. They promoted fear of an all-powerful executive in the City and class warfare.
  • Separation: Fails 12,276 to 14,142
    The vote on Aug 22, 1876 failed. The population of the city is about what it is today. No women participated in the vote.
  • Recount: Passes 12,181 to 10,928
    Accusations of voter fraud followed. Ballot-stuffing was determined, and votes were thrown out. A judge determined a new total and deemed it passed.
  • For more on this era in St. Louis history see The Great Heart of the Republic

1925-26 Never mind, City takes over everything
The constitutional language only covered separation and not reunification. An attempt to amend the constitution via constitutional convention failed. A more narrow constitutional amendment via initiative passed allowing reunification.

  • City 169,934 to 40,192
  • County 30,285 to 11,852
  • Statewide 477,766 to 385,516

The new language outlined a Board of Freeholders process for reorganization. The Board of Freeholders was quite contentious. City members won, and a complete City takeover was the plan. In order to pass a majority would need to support in both the city and county.

  • Proponents: Million Population Club, City elites. They didn’t mount much of a campaign assuming County voters would jump at the privilege of being invited to join the City.
  • Opponents: County officeholders, municipal officials, and County Chamber of Commerce. They promoted fear of takeover and revenge for the City ramming through their plan.
  • City 54,558 to 8,067
  • County 10,955 to 22,148 Turnout 67%
  • Fail

1930 Metropolitan Federation
An academician wrote an amendment to create an overarching metropolitan government called “Greater St Louis” which would take on roles such as sewage, water, and major parks. It was put on ballot via voter initiative

  • Proponents: Chambers of Commerce of both City and County. “Make it a Greater St Louis in a Greater Missouri”
  • Opponents: Save St Louis County League, County elected officials, political party leaders. They promoted fear of City dominance.
  • Statewide 218,381 to 378,718
  • County 14,669 to 21,699
  • Fail

1958-59 Metropolitan Government layer
The effort was led by Alderman and academicians. Ignoring poll results, they formed a solution to a problem that the citizens didn’t see. A new layer of government with a president and legislature with power over arterial roads, public transit regulation, land use planning, economic development, wastewater sewers, civil defense, and crime lab/police academy. The Board of Freeholders was more open, holding public hearings and broadcasting them on TV.

  • Proponents: City-County Partnership Committee, City and County Chambers of Commerce, good gov’t groups, media. They said small government couldn’t cope with area-wide problems, overall planning was needed to prevent chaos, and economic competition with other metros required a unified approach.
  • Opponents: Citizens Committee against the district plan wanted full-blown merger. Citizens Committee for Self-Government lead by County municipal elected officials, suburban newspaper publishers, and most Republican and Democratic Party leaders played upon doubts and fears. Mayor Tucker opposed.
  • City 21,343 to 43,479
  • County 27,633 to 82,738
  • Epic Fail

1962 Borough plan
(Note this is the time when Nashville merged with Davidson County)
An amendment was proposed to create a Municipal County with 22 boroughs each electing two representatives to a legislative council and an executive mayor. After getting the amendment on the ballot, very little effort was put into getting it passed. The voters would recognize a great plan and do the right thing.

  • Opponents: Citizens for Home Rule made of County businesses and elected officials. They promoted the sanctity of local autonomy and fear of a few dominating one-third of the state (Note that the City and County are now 22% of the state population).
  • Statewide 217,744 to 633,011
  • County 47,432 to 180,661 Turnout 68%
  • City 55,100 to 67,321
  • Epic Fail

1982-84 Civic Progress commissioned studies and wrote a plan for a charter municipal county. All but school districts, special districts, court circuits, MSD, and ZMD would be merged. It all would operate under the county’s charter with necessary changes and the whole county would have a 1% earnings tax. The petition language for the Board of Freeholders would have limiting language. They opted not to seek petition signatures.

Gene McNary, St Louis County Executive, led an effort to combine the 90+ County municipalities into 21 and add one or two City-County districts. The Board of Freeholders commenced drawing boundary lines and settled on 37 municipalities, a joint Economic Development District, and protection districts reduced to four. A County earnings tax would replace property taxes, zoning would be guided by a county-wide master plan.

  • Proponents: Good Gov’t groups led a soft-sell campaign via a community education effort.
  • Opponents: Mayors of Large Cities: “any attempt to change municipal boundaries through forced consolidation or merger of existing cities would be divisive” Mayor of Velda Village: “is there a secret, sinister plan in the works that would … dismantle all cities headed by black elected officials in St Louis County?” Court challenges over Freeholders were filed (a Freeholder is a land owner). During the election campaign Countians Against High Taxes and Loss of Local Control led the fight.
  • The Supreme Court of the US agreed to hear the case over whether Freeholder was unconstitutional under equal-protection, and the election date was postponed indefinitely.
  • A Board of Electors formed in 1990 and proposed a joint governance of Forest Park and a joint economic development district. It was on the April 1992 ballot
  • City 47% yes, County 46% yes
  • Fail

Jones concludes that all these attempts failed because either side perceived itself as the stronger entity and didn’t want to marry down. In other regions, where reform has been successful (Nashville, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville), the city was already in the county, and there wasn’t a dramatic difference in socioeconomic status. Instead of focusing on a prenuptial agreement, they focused on who does what.

My take
I see it as a failure of backers to understand the body politic. Whether business, political, or academic, they seemed to forget that the people would vote on it. Businessmen counted their potential riches, politicians played king by drawing lines on a map, academicians and good government advocates dreamed up perfect government mechanisms. “Vote yes because it’s good for you and we say so” or “we’re so awesome; how could anyone not like our plan?” are not effective campaign strategies. If an attempt at reform is made in the near-term we must take the temperature of the public, answer their questions, assuage their concerns, and incorporate some of their ideas. Either the petition language must bind the Board of Electors to an outline gleamed from the community discussion or a constitutional amendment must set up a framework wherein citizen input matters during the transition process. And then when a plan is set to be voted on, a well-run and funded campaign must be waged.

SLU Law will have a symposium on Feb 28 United We Stand or United We Fall: The Reunification of St. Louis City and County I plan to go and livetweet @stlunite

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  • Hugh Scott

    Several of us who have been involved in various forms of regional government over the years have been talking about the differences between “functional” consolidation and “political” consolidation. As Professor Jones has noted quite often, St. Louis does functional consolidation fairly well. (MSD, ZMD, BiState, Community College District, City/County Economic Development) Unfortunately, all of the past efforts at reorganization as well as those being discussed today involve “political” consolidation. If we prioritize functional consolidations, political consolidation will take care of itself over time

  • dempster holland

    The basic obstacle to change is that most people don’t think there is a problem
    that needs solving.

  • Don

    Perhaps I’m just naive, but it seems like past plans have been needlessly complicated (Businessmen counted their potential riches, politicians played king by drawing lines on a map,…). Why can’t the City have the same relationship with the County as Clayton or Webster Groves or any of the other municipalities of the county? This is hardly rocket science.

    The city would then eliminate it’s county functions like the sheriff, jail, assessor, separate election authority, etc. while maintaining is own PD, parks and streets, etc.

    • rgbose

      Exactly, that’s why many are pushing only reentry today. History teaches that going for more fails; it’s too complicated, uncertain, scary. There’s more to find to not like the more complicated or broad the proposal is. I hope people aren’t tempted tog o for more this time around.

      • John R

        I agree going small ball would make success more likely, but simple re-entry into the County is going to do little on its own. Arguably a major effort behind re-entry would be a distraction for making real progress in improving the region.

        • Short of a full on merger making St. Louis County part of the City of St. Louis, no solution is going to significantly change the landscape.

          We all know the City of St. Louis is the regional center, but really, what is gained from treating it differently from the City of Maplewood or the City of Chesterfield in regards to larger governance. Just like any other village, township or city, St. Louis will have its own unique needs and issues, ordinances, local sales taxes, etc. which will be handled at the local level.

          I’d note too that the vast majority of major American cities exist within a County and — whether because of or in spite of that relationship — are respected as the center of regional life.

  • matimal

    I agree that St. Louis has to build itself up in order to have a stronger hand in negotiating regional sharing in the future. That means formal regionalism is years away. It doesn’t mean St. Louis doesn’t have important work to do internally.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I’m not so sure. In many ways the City is on the right track – successfully attracting young professionals, etc. the City’s also in decent financial shape. The City has obviously lost residents for decades, but the County hasn’t grown since 1970 and lost population this past decade. I’d be willing to bet that the 2020 Census will show a decrease in the County and an increase in the City. Would that change the conversation? I believe that if we wait another decade or more, the City won’t want to join the County – a place with growing poverty and aging infrastructure that was cheaply built in the first place.

      • Thomas R Shrout Jr

        Not to mention aging housing stock in the county that as you say, was cheaply built.

      • John R

        I’ll take that bet as I’m not too optimistic on population growth in either the city or county. Our region has huge obstacles highlighted by very challenging job growth…. I believe we’re not expected to catch up with pre-recession job levels until 2016, one of the most sluggish metros in the country. Add on top of that, anemic immigration and the expected loss of a lot of seniors/baby boomer generation to retirement and death, should result in problematic 2020 Census results for both places. One thing that could be a boon to the city — and coming at the county’s expense — is if the number of millennials is especially large within the region. I guess that is a question for demographers but the slow growth nature of the region puts us in a difficult place.

        So my bet is improved performance on population growth in the city but still a loss, while anemic or no growth in the County.

        (On the poverty issue, the rates have been growing in both places as well; yet, it is markedly higher in the City (29%) than in the County (12%) and I wouldn’t look for a great decline in the city anytime soon.)

        • rgbose

          What do the trends look like? Keep in mind that the impoverished people leave the city usually end up in the county. Also 29% of the city is 92,500 and 12% of the county is 120,000. Something to keep an eye on for sure.

      • dempster holland

        When you talk about whether St Louis County is gaining or
        losing population, you are really talking about whether the
        urbanized area outside the central city is gaining or losing
        population. That means you must add in the urbanized
        areas of St Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties. And
        if you do that you will conclude that the urbanized area
        outside the central city has continued to grow in population
        and probably will continue to do so in the decades ahead.The
        growth may be slower, and such growth is not inconsistent with
        some growth in the city. One result of this is that merging the
        city and the county would really get the area back to about where
        it was in 1940, with one-fifth of the population outside the
        central city