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

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

{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


NextSTL is committed to providing original stories and unique perspectives on a variety of urban topics such as architecture, development, transportation, historic preservation, urban planning and design and public policy in St. Louis. We're always looking to add new, diverse voices to the mix. We accept anonymous tips, pitches for story ideas, and completed stories.

Learn More