Understanding St. Louis: Visualizing Aldermanic Voting Records

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From the beginning of the 2015 aldermanic session through June 24, 2016, 9,194 votes have been recorded at the city’s 28-member Board of Aldermen. Of those, just 88 recorded votes, or 0.96%, were “no”. More than 86% were recorded as “yes”, and nearly 13% as “absent”.

What the aggregate numbers tell us is unclear. It’s too easy to see the less than one percent “no” vote as epitomizing the rubber stamp courtesy of the city’s legislative body. Before votes are cast, a bill’s passage has long been secured, the result is not in doubt.

One significant point missing from the data presented here is the committee voting record, which is not made available online. A lot of things, presumably both good and bad, die in committee. For example, just this past week, an effort to no longer allow lobbyists as “special guests” on the floor of the Board of Alderman, failed to make it to larger board.

Ward Votes_edit_logo

If voting on bills provides only a limited view of the city’s legislative body, we can infer some things about the process. Working backward, we can understand that virtually all bills are resolved in committee, many bills do not make it to committee, and aldermen do not draft bills unlikely to win committee support. One of the conclusions from the vote count is that consensus is reached well before a bill catches the public eye.

What else can be found in the numbers? Eight aldermen recorded zero “no” votes, of 330 bills. Another eight recorded just one. Only five recorded more than three. This means 23 aldermen cast a “no” vote on bills before the body just 0.29% of the time (“yes” at a rate of 99.71%).

Seven aldermen recorded “absent” votes on more than 20 percent of the 330 bills before them. Nine aldermen recorded “absent” votes less than 5% of the time, and just two had zero absent votes. Still, the vote tallies mostly just shed light on the “how” of aldermanic voting, and not the “why”.

“Present” and “abstain” votes may also be cast by members of the board. As bills require a majority “yes” votes to pass, any other vote can be used in effect as a “no” vote. In addition, an “absent” vote can sometimes reflect that an alderman left the chamber for a specific vote, even if they were present for the session. From the dates tabulated, just five “present” votes were recorded, including: Conway 2, Ortmann 1, French 1, Arnowitz 1.

It would have been easy to write a more clickable headline, but as I’ve noted, any conclusions to be drawn are quite limited. A large majority of bills are neither controversial, nor strictly legislative, such as approving acceptance of federal grants, signing off on a gate lease at Lambert airport, or blighting an individual vacant home for redevelopment (of which there are many).

Still, it’s instructive to view aldermanic votes in this manner as a baseline to understanding an important core function of the city’s elected representatives. Too few understand what votes at the board look like. The aim is for this to serve as a starting point for a much broader discussion.

Overall spreadsheet_logo

*data compiled from individual voting records accessed on the City of St. Louis website

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  • Tom of the Missouri

    Great post!

    Would you please do a similar analysis for other places where there is a considerable development and a bit more controversy. Two current ones would be University City and Clayton. I bet U-city’s would be about 50-50 yes and no. Clayton on the other hand would be 100% yes votes. Clayton is a case where the board seems to be unified in completely ignoring the will of a large segment of their voting age population.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Would be interesting. If the voting records are online, sure. I’ve looked before, though it’s been a while, and don’t think they’re available.

      • Tom of the Missouri

        Not available on line eh? That says a lot by itself about their commitment to representative democracy. Amazing.

        Really enjoy your site. Thank you for your reply.

  • matimal

    For comparison, Cincinnati’s nine-person city council rarely has unanimous votes and often has narrowly divided votes in committees and in the final council votes.

    • gmichaud

      I know other cities I have looked at encourage far more public interaction than St. Louis in a variety of ways, methods and policies.
      St. Louis is so insular and inbreed it is reflected in most design solutions which in turn pulls the city further down a rat hole. As cited previously the Grand Center Garage and its autocentric design in one of the most pedestrian orientated parts of the city is a good example of what that inbreed “good old boy (or girl)” policies have produced.
      The ultimate proof of failure is the continual population decline. The charts above define how that colossal failure is accomplished. They (the Board of Aldermen) choose to do nothing about it.
      The Board of Aldermen fails to do much about anything really. Voting is a big show and meaningful issues are kept away from the public by their conspiracy.

      • matimal

        I know both Cincy and St. Louis and I’d say that both are similarly “insular and inbred.” That’s why I mention Cincinnati’s different politics. If Cincy can have more visible and contested politics, so can a similar city like St. Louis.

        • gmichaud

          Ok, I know a few cities I have been looking at well enough to compare to Cincy. London, Helsinki and San Francisco all have a basic two step process. First being proactive. In other words in St Louis after the Grand Center Great Streets study the city would have come back with an overall strategy for the district. That would have happened in the above mentioned cities. Is Cincinnati proactive in this way? Everyone already knows the outline of what to expect.
          Then once an actual project is proposed public input is invited. (London welcomes comments on projects as small as a garage renovation) Does this occur in Cincinnati?
          St. Louis of course is zero for the above unless an alderman requests a public hearing by the developer.
          Then you have the St Louis Board of Alderman, they decide on various tax giveaways, but they debate nothing, so projects slide through without concern for their merit.
          What exactly is the Cincinnati council debating in terms of development that contrasts with St. Louis?
          The proof of failure in St. Louis is the continual human population and economic decline of the city and region. Stagnation is considered success.
          How does Cincy fare in that regard?

          • matimal

            Cincinnati’s approach is to remove development from city council entirely with private development corporations such as 3cdc.org. All council members are elected at large and the top nine vote getters win. Each has to care about ALL of Cincinnati to some degree. Also, in Ohio local government layers on top of each other so Cincinnati residents are ALSO residents of Hamilton County. Various park, school, park, sewer, and library districts overlay this in a complicated pattern. This means that local government boundaries are not as important as in metro St. Louis.

  • matimal

    St. Louis needs much more of this kind of analysis. Real reform can begin from even small social, economic, or political shifts in the balance of power.

    • gmichaud

      I agree, Although I think Alex already does a great job of providing an incredible overview of the St. Louis region. I also have to agree, think small and local.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Thanks, but so much more is needed, from existing news outlets, individuals, hopefully this site if we can get more support.

  • gmichaud

    Great analysis, I understand your reluctance to draw any conclusions, please allow me. This system of governance and its results you measure above are a major factor in the decline of St. Louis.
    Aldermanic courtesy, as you talked about in a recent article, is how business gets done in St. Louis. This means for example a developer just has to convince one alderman on the merits of what they are doing and the rest of the Board goes along, no matter how mediocre the project. Multiply this times hundreds of projects and you have the decline of St Louis.
    The decision making process is opaque and does not engage the public. Having a public hearing and calling it one and done is not engaging the public. If there are public hearings at all.
    In London as part of their planning policy they have a Statement of Community Involvement which outlines the obligations for communicating to the public about building and urban planning. They go so far as to say that in the effort to be inclusive, they want to communicate with the “difficult to reach” groups, they then say “This may require actively seeking out the views of hard-to-reach groups” (section 2.47)
    In St. Louis it is the opposite. The Aldermen and city officials keep the public and their views as far away from projects as humanely possible.
    A perfect example of all of this and how it contributes to decline is your recent article about the auto only garage being built by Fox Associates in Grand Center. The project was announced and construction scheduled at the same time. It is clear they don’t want public discussion. And then there is the tax abatements. Worth, based on construction costs, about a million dollars over ten years.
    The Board of Alderman as you note above will rubber stamp this tax abatement. So the public is losing on two fronts, the ability to question the project itself, and then the public is railroaded into help pay for it.
    This is despite the fact the Great Streets Study done a a few years ago clearly recommends garages in the Grand Center district should have commercial and apartments on the street with parking behind. That is along with strong recommendations for making the district pedestrian friendly
    So the obvious question is why? Why did the city and citizen tax money pay for this Grand Center Plan if the recommendations by the professionals hired by the city are ignored?
    There is no debate about any of this, nor the fact the autocentric garage will likely harm the future success of the Grand Center District, nor the fact the garage does nothing to support and enhance the pedestrian and transit environment. It makes a mockery of the idea of an art walk and strands the Sheldon, Pultizer and Contemporary Art Museums.
    None of this discussed in public by the Board of Alderman as they rubber stamp everything. It is not discussed by citizens, nor the major media who contribute to the perpetuation of this system.
    The result is that St. Louis keeps getting saddled with second rate projects like this garage (and ugly to boot).
    What your analysis does is illustrate how the process of governing works. The charts show the process is designed for insiders and has nothing to do about quality of life and the future of the city.
    Until your chart above changes to demonstrate there is honest public debate. Until processes become transparent and inclusive, St. Louis will have difficulty moving into the future.

    • Nathan Woodall

      Some of the issues you describe no doubt contribute to the