By Erin Achenbach
After a year marred by a late start, absentee members and conflict over procedures, the St. Louis County Charter Commission has wrapped up its job of studying and recommending changes to the county Charter with no major proposals, but 20 minor amendments that it will present as a new Charter.
In the commission’s final meeting Dec. 23, two major proposals — one that would make all countywide elected offices nonpartisan and another that would have increased the County Council size to nine members if St. Louis city joins the county as a municipality — failed to earn the required nine out of 14 votes to be placed on the ballot for county voters.
The Charter is the constitution-like document that governs St. Louis County government.
The two proposals join a long list of changes to the Charter that failed to gain enough support, including proposals that would have implemented a council-manager form of government, outlined minimum standards for police departments in the county and made the county auditor an elected position.
“I wish… we would have gone with a county-manager form of government. I wish we would have given people that choice in the public square over the next eight months. I think that would have been an interesting thing to see. I think the people of St. Louis County deserved it,” said Commissioner Christopher Grahn-Howard at the final meeting. “Sadly, this region has suffered from immense short side of leadership for over 100 years… We didn’t address any of that kind of stuff. And it saddens me.”
Then-council Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas of Oakville had been a vocal proponent of both the council-manager form of government and making the switch to nonpartisan elections. From the audience at the meeting Dec. 23, Trakas once again urged the panel to adopt Commissioner Colleen Wasinger’s proposal for nonpartisan elections.
“I understand some of you don’t agree with it, but again, yours is not the final decision. The voters of St. Louis County have a right to decide whether or not they want nonpartisan voting,” said Trakas. “So I would implore you, urge you in the strongest terms possible to open your minds, consider the proposition before you, the importance of it, how it will improve the county, and to at least let the voters decide with respect to whether or not they want nonpartisan voting in St. Louis County.”
One commissioner who always spoke against nonpartisan elections was Courtney Allen Curtis, a former state representative from Ferguson. Curtis feared that nonpartisan elections — in which candidates would not be identified by party — could disenfranchise minority voters.
Curtis, who now works as a council legislative assistant, voted against the proposal along with Commissioners Nate Griffin, Reggie Jones, Tony Weaver, Andrea-Jackson Jennings and Bob Grant. Commissioner Sarah Crosley was absent.
Most proposals approved for the ballot were technical, such as moving the Board of Zoning Adjustment from the Public Works section to the Planning Commission section, switching to gender neutral nouns throughout the Charter and officially changing the name of the Department of Highways and Traffic to the Department of Transportation, as well as merging the public works department with the transportation department.
“Obviously I’m very disappointed that we didn’t produce some more material and more meaningful items for the voters to consider,” said Wasinger. “I do see the presiding chair here, and I would encourage him to bring up some of those ideas at the council to see if we are able to get them to the voters because they are the people that should be deciding these issues regardless of how we personally feel about them. You’re against it. You vote against it at the ballot. Give the voters an opportunity to be heard.”
As far as ballot strategy, the commission ultimately voted 9-5 to propose the 20 amendments on the ballot as an entirely new Charter.
“… Really we’ve just kind of updated the Charter. There isn’t anything controversial so far as I can see. And if there was, we’d separate it out from the package,” said commission chair and former County Executive Gene McNary. “Since there isn’t anything, why not just submit the package all or nothing to the voter?”
Commissioner Maxine Schumacher of South County countered McNary’s stance, claiming it would not be fair to voters to make it an all-or-nothing vote.
“I do not believe that it’s fair to give the voters one option, either aye or nay on the entire bundle that we’ve worked all year on,” said Schumacher.
The commission also opted to place the Charter rework on the Aug. 6 ballot, reasoning that voters who vote in April and August elections are typically better-educated on the issues and would take the time to read the changes. The Aug. 6 ballot date passed 12-1, with Curtis dissenting. He preferred the November election due to higher voter turnout.
The final meeting of the commission, which was a make-up for a previously scheduled meeting Dec. 15 that was canceled due to poor weather, marked the end of a long year for the commission.
The commission got off to a delayed start, with a month between its first and second meeting. It did not start meeting weekly until March, but issues grew from there. Six members of the commission ultimately resigned, including former County Executive Steve Stenger’s Chief of Policy Jeff Wagener, a former 6th District councilman.
The commission, which voters approved in November 2018, had until Dec. 31 to finish that mandate. For proposals to go to the ballot, nine of the 14 members would have to approve it. Membership was comprised of seven delegates appointed by each member of the County Council and seven delegates appointed by the county executive.
“I think that yes, we didn’t give the voters a chance to vote on some really major issues. But this commission worked hard. I mean, we spent a lot of time, you gotta feel good about that,” said McNary in his closing remarks. “There were no rubber stamps here. I saw 14 different independent opinions… but all of the opinions were really… from their best thinking and their heart and trying to serve the people of St. Louis County.”