Hollistaylor66 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 8, 2019; St Louis Post-Dispatch and the Cleveland Plain Dealer

Four years of study graphically defined many urgent problems facing residents of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Two more years were spent developing a sweeping set of recommendations to overhaul the area’s complex governmental bureaucracy central to those problems. Town hall meetings were held and robust community robust education efforts were implemented. This week, the results of all that work were shelved in the face of vocal community opposition.

When it was formed in 2013, the Missouri Council for a Better Economy desired to become the “catalyst for the removal of governmental, economic, and racial barriers to the region’s growth and prosperity for all of our citizens by promoting unity, trust, efficiency, and accountability.” Under the banner of Better Together, the organization, led by a diverse set of community leaders, concluded that “from inefficient government spending to frequently predatory courts, our region is struggling to thrive.”

With serious problems to solve, their proposals were radical. Recognizing that race had shaped the structures that determined who had access to jobs, quality schools, good housing, effective policing, and health care, Better Together wanted massive political rearrangement. According to CityLab, their proposal would “combine the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County in a new type of local government for Missouri: a metropolitan city.”

Governed by an elected “Metro Mayor” and a 33‑member council, the new Metro City of St. Louis would have sweeping powers to enact new laws, tax residents, and oversee law enforcement, justice, planning, zoning, and economic development.…Such a consolidation would overnight transform St. Louis into the 10th largest city in the US, with 1.3 million people—larger than San Jose and right behind Dallas.

The 88 suburban cities, towns, and villages that surround the City of St. Louis would be “municipal districts” within the new St. Louis and have limited local autonomy. Beyond improved services and the ability to spur growth, Better Together estimated that this consolidation would save $250 million per year.

It should be noted that CityLab estimates that “there have been about 40 city-county mergers in the U.S.; in recent decades, major examples include Nashville (1962), Indianapolis (1970), and Louisville (2003). They’re rare because they’re difficult to pull off: Voters may be skeptical of the money-saving arguments for consolidation and susceptible to fears over changing borders between segregated communities. Louisville only got their union done on the fourth try.” It noted back in January that “some were concerned that the proposed merger would dilute local African American political power.”

And, indeed, in the end, all of Better Together’s efforts  could not overcome fears that power would not be shared equitably. Peter Krouse of the Plain Dealer observes:

Proponents never convincingly addressed concerns by other African Americans within the City of St. Louis, where the population is 48 percent black, that they would have a significant say in a metro government that would be only 30 percent black.

Two of the city’s aldermen believed that Better Together would “result in a sharp reduction in African-American political influence and representation and thus jeopardize advances made for black residents of St. Louis over the years.”

In the wake of the collapse of the Better Together plan, reactions of two suburban leaders indicate how wide the trust gap is. Wellston City Administrator Janice Trigg said she wouldn’t work with Better Together, and Crestwood’s Mayor Grant Mabie said he’d treat the collective as one would treat a political rival—“as the US does with the Russians.” Even that grudging concession, however, was seen as a compromise, rather than risk the possibility of “some hairbrained Better Together Version 2.0” in the future.

We are left with some important questions to ponder. Was this failure simply a process problem that could be solved by better efforts to listen and engage? That’s the position of Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University and chair of the campaign to approve the Better Together plan. “I think we need more dialogue about what is actually being proposed,” Wrighton says. “I think there are misunderstandings.” He told the Post-Dispatch that the public needs better information on “the shortcomings of the region, the fragmentation of governments, and the need for reform.”

If solving our cities’ problems and healing the scars of racism require the kind of radical restructuring Better Together has proposed, how do we venture into this uncharted territory? Our current era of intense political factionalism does not offer much hope for overcoming longstanding barriers and moving toward a future not controlled by old patterns. Yet, if Better Together’s analysis of the situation is even partially correct, solutions will require a level of trust that was absent in St Louis.—Martin Levine