Better Together provides answers at first town hall, but maybe not the ones crowd wanted

Above, some of the chief backers of the Better Together movement for one St. Louis and a city-county merger talk about the plan at its rollout at the Cheshire Inn Jan. 28, including, from left to right, Better Together Deputy Director of Community-Based Studies Marius Johnson-Malone, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, who will lead the campaign for a 2020 statewide vote on the merger. Photo by Erin Achenbach.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

Attendees at the first Better Together town hall last week got some answers about the proposed St. Louis city-county merger — but maybe not the ones they wanted.

The second of eight town-hall meetings from Better Together happens at 6 p.m. Thursday at Carpenters Hall in south city, 1401 Hampton Ave. Unlike the first meeting, Better Together announced this week it would seat attendees in a walkup line first-come first-serve Thursday, beyond the 150 sold-out RSVPs. The group is also livestreaming the meetings on its Facebook page.

The nonprofit advocacy group is holding the meetings to discuss its ambitious proposal to merge St. Louis County, St. Louis city and all 88 county municipalities into one “metro city” through a statewide vote in November 2020. The plan would consolidate government under one mayor and council and one unified police department and court system, along with zoning, economic development and other services.

The group plans to collect 160,000 signatures to place the merger on the ballot.

The crowd at the kickoff town hall March 6 at Greater St. Mark Family Church was vocally skeptic about some aspects of the plan, including the statewide vote and the proposal to merge all police departments into one.

Better Together Deputy Director of Community Studies Marius Johnson-Malone took center stage at the church, outlining why he believes the merger has to happen and answering a long line of questioners.

The same type of format with Johnson-Malone presenting is planned for the next seven town halls too, Better Together spokesman Ed Rhode said.

A key reason Better Together is pushing for a merger is because of the inequalities in services offered to residents over 90 different governments now, Johnson-Malone said.

“In some cities you may have everything you might want,” he noted. “In other areas, we struggle.”

In five years of studies, Better Together catalogued more than 130 tax increases adding up to $120 million more in the region since 2012. Those hikes came at the same time St. Louis city has long been losing population, and the county lost population for the first time ever with the last census numbers.

“So essentially we are paying more money for the same services,” the Better Together representative noted.

That also comes with no central accountability, he argued, as the many municipal mayors are not accountable to the county executive because “they all derive their power from the state.”

That means “we know we don’t have a single voice that can say this is who we want to be in this region,” Johnson-Malone said. “We live in a system set up to fail.”

Still, it worked well enough for 150 years or so until Ferguson, or as Johnson-Malone said it, “until Michael Brown particularly — it became apparent that not all the systems that these cities had were benign.”

One of those in the crowd was 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, who said, “It was, as expected, a real well-prepared, thought-out and slick presentation delivered by somebody that was very well prepared, understood the narrative, and every answer to every question there always reverted back to the narrative.”

Better Together estimated a crowd of 110, but Trakas said that included 10 of the group’s staff member and another 10 members of the media, meaning less than 100 people from the public were there.

“Limiting your town halls to 150 people is counterintuitive and in some ways an oxymoron,” Trakas said. “Wouldn’t you want to reach out to as many people as possible?”

City resident John Chasnoff, who successfully lobbied for a civilian review board overseeing the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said he disagrees with the statewide vote and with the idea that St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger — who is set to become “metro mayor” with two years added onto his current four-year term — would essentially write the metro city’s new Charter without having to go to a vote of the people. For the two transition years into the new city, Stenger would serve alongside the “transition mayor,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

“I think in many ways it’s undemocratic,” Chasnoff said. “Basically you’re letting two people rewrite the charter of the new metro city, and that’s a long way from the popular votes for charter amendments that we have now…. It becomes personal for me — I worked for 15 years for police accountability in the city, and that ordinance could just evaporate because Steve Stenger’s guy doesn’t like civilian oversight.”

The “guy” would be Stenger’s choice of city counselor, who Chasnoff predicted would help the new mayor rewrite ordinances in the transition.

Johnson-Malone said that any rewrites from Krewson and Stenger would focus on the organization of the administrative branch.

“It’s not like they have carte blanche to say this is how the metro council will work,” he said. “The way that that is going to work is their job isn’t going to be rewriting ordinances, it’s going to be examining the ordinances to see if there are conflicts.”

The few aspects of local government left untouched by the merger plan are school districts and fire districts, which will stay as they are. The St. Louis Fire Department will become a fire protection district that could contract service out to county cities that want to disband their own fire departments. But schools would stay the same, for now.

At the microphone, Gail Woods of Black Jack said that one of the biggest problems facing the region is jobs leaving the city and county, and she saw education as the key to solving that issue.

“I just don’t understand why your study does not recognize that children are part of the future,” she said.

Johnson-Malone noted that Better Together spent five years studying municipal governance, not school districts.

“It’s not that we don’t think education is important, that’s certainly not true. We don’t feel that we’re the right ones to be leading that conversation,” he said. But at the same time, “the well being of a child is more important than just what happens in a classroom,” and the environment surrounding students outside of school could be improved through a merger.

Delivering services better across the region “will have a positive impact on kids,” he said.

Detective Chris Silliman of the Maryland Heights Police Department got applause from the crowd when he asked whether the unified department’s response times would be as good as his city’s. He lives in unincorporated north county, he said, and response times from the St. Louis County Police Department are not as good as what his department achieves in Maryland Heights.

“It’ll take 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes for an officer to show up to my house or my neighbor’s house,” Silliman said of the county police response times, and could Johnston-Malone promise that would change to be more like smaller cities?

As some attendees shouted from the back, Johnson-Malone said, “You’re taking my pause as a confirmation of something that’s not true. I don’t think that’s the case. I’m obviously not a law-enforcement professional, you are. But response time is one indicator of police performance among many.”

A better performance indicator is actually solving crimes, he said. And while Maryland Heights may have superior policing, other areas don’t, and that is an “injustice that we can’t continue to perpetrate. So the folks living where you live now can have what you describe in your professional life.”

Wanda from Bellefontaine Neighbors said she thinks people would support the plan more if they understood it better or even read it themselves, and Johnson-Malone agreed.

“It’s sort of like drinking from a fire hose — we want to offer as many opportunities as possible,” he said. “Obviously this conversation can’t end tonight, and it shouldn’t. We have a lot more discussion to be had, a lot more to be answered.”