Commission members continue review of possible changes to MSD Charter

Most of commission’s members support status quo of appointed Board of Trustees

By EVAN YOUNG

When the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s charter review wraps next year, its Board of Trustees could be larger, elected, higher paid, able to act without a supermajority vote or any combination of those things.

The Plan Amendment Commission is considering changes to the MSD Charter article on the Board of Trustees. MSD officials presented the group last week with a series of possible amendments to that section, which have been proposed by district staff and the public.

Among the suggestions: increasing the number of spots on the district’s Board of Trustees and calling for the election of its members.

The six-member board setup has been in place since MSD’s formation 55 years ago, with the idea of equal board representation for both St. Louis city and county. At the time, the city’s population was greater than the county’s, but that since has reversed.

Board members currently are appointed — three by the mayor of St. Louis and three by the county executive — to staggered four-year terms. They serve their respective jurisdictions in an at-large capacity, meaning they aren’t distributed geographically or by population.

That became an issue last year when MSD established a new monthly stormwater-service fee, Executive Director Jeff Theerman said.

“When we had our rate change for stormwater, there was concern expressed by far-west St. Louis County that there weren’t any county trustees west of (Interstate) 270, and that somehow their perspective out in the far-west part of the St. Louis area was not heard or not considered,” Theerman told the commission last week.

In a breakdown of 27 other sewer districts from around the country presented to the commission Nov. 24, eight districts — such as the ones in Independence and Chicago — had elected governing boards. Most of the boards had 10 or fewer members, though a few had from 25 to 30.

If the board were elected, the district would need to consider creating a subdistrict or ward system through which to distribute the seats, Theerman said. He noted he hadn’t experienced many problems with a six-member, appointed board.

“I haven’t experienced a parochial approach, if you will, by the trustees on the board. They tend to be thinking in terms of the district,” he said. “I haven’t experienced a city-county dichotomy on the board. In the past that has been the case, where the board would be polarized and may not have been thinking in terms of the same broad picture.

“I can tell you that I know of others in my position with very large boards and they’ve found it difficult. Members start to feel unimportant as individuals …”

Given that MSD plans to spend billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements over the next several years, the executive director said it might be harder for an elected board to make difficult decisions.

Most commission members said they supported the status quo of an appointed board.

“Generally it seems like the appointments are working well …,” attorney Susan Gamble said. “I don’t hear a lot of people scrambling to be appointed to this board. There’s not a lot of perks, there’s not a lot of prestige, there’s not a lot of stuff that might go into making it not conducive to good appointments. For now, I don’t hear that there’s a great need to change the system.”

Former county MSD Trustee Pepe Finn, who was appointed by the late Buzz Westfall, said the appointment system was a “tremendous benefit” that allowed her and her fellow trustees to “do things that may not be politically expedient but may in the long term be in the best interests of the district at large.”

“I think one of the issues St. Louis as a metropolitan area faces is the fact that everybody’s worried about their own fiefdom. The district looks after the metropolitan area …,” Finn said. “If they’re (trustees) worried that they’re going to do something that’s politically unpopular and they’re not going to get elected, it’s going to become really difficult to make hard decisions and put things on the ballot that are not necessarily going to be popular. But we didn’t have to worry about that, so we did what we thought was in the best interest of the district.”

Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch said she “absolutely would oppose” changing the charter to provide for an elected board.

“When people get elected to these large bodies, people don’t know who they’re electing and folks run for office as a stepping stone to something else,” she said. “I think your appointment process works so much better for getting people with good qualifications that would never run for public office.”

The commission also is considering doing away with the supermajority required for the Board of Trustees to approve an action. Currently, two county trustees and two city trustees must cast affirmative votes for a motion to pass, which prevents the deadlocking of a six-member board.

However, when there are board vacancies or a trustee abstains on a vote because of a possible conflict of interest, the two remaining board members from that jurisdiction inadvertently are given “veto power,” Theerman said.

Officials, therefore, have suggested changing the charter to require four affirmative votes — regardless of jurisdiction — to approve an action.

“Ninety-five percent of the time our ordinances pass without problems,” Theerman said. “When it does happen, it’s noticeable.”

However, the commission’s decision on the supermajority requirement may depend on how many trustees it decides to put on the board. Commissioners said if they decided to increase the board’s size to 10 trustees, they likely wouldn’t change the voting requirement.

Trustees also could see a pay raise. They currently are paid $25 per regular or special board meeting, or about $400 a year with perfect attendance. The pay rate, which like the number of trustees has remained unchanged since MSD’s formation, doesn’t include committee meetings or special events where trustees represent MSD.

When the charter last was reviewed in 2000, the commission considered increasing trustee pay to $200 per meeting, but that change was rejected by the board for fear of negative media attention, Theerman said.

MSD staff also have suggested, as an alternative, paying trustees for committee meetings and special events while retaining the $25 per meeting rate.

Commissioners indicated they would be open to a pay increase, possibly changing to a flat monthly rate, but did not discuss a specific amount. They asked MSD officials to provide more information about how much other area board members are paid, and to determine how much $25 in 1954 would be worth today, given inflation.

The commission will continue to review the MSD charter for the next few months and submit their recommended changes to the Board of Trustees for approval by June 1. Amendments that make it through the board will go before district voters in November 2010.