St. Louis Post-Dispatch — Why change the Missouri Constitution to unify St. Louis?

By Michael A. Wolff

Why do we need to amend the Missouri Constitution in order to unify St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis? Can’t we make necessary changes with just a local vote?

The Missouri Constitution created our current fragmented and dysfunctional government structure in St. Louis city and county, and if we want to repair it we will need to change the constitution. The Missouri Constitution can only be changed by a statewide vote. Anything less than a constitutional change amounts simply to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Voters statewide approved the Constitution in 1875 that set the stage for the city to “divorce” St. Louis County in 1876. Voters in 1876 probably rejected a “freeholders” plan to separate city and county, but a court case resulted in more than enough votes being discarded to make the divorce a winner. Voting shenanigans aside, this separation led to fragmentation and dysfunction as the county grew from several thousand rural residents to nearly a million residents today.

With constitutionally sanctioned separation, we in St. Louis city and county waste an enormous amount of taxpayer money on duplicative, inefficient and often ineffective services. A unified approach to public safety, economic development and governmental finance would help ensure that tax money will be spent wisely and that opportunities for job creation and economic growth will not be squandered by factional squabbling.

Unfortunately, we in St. Louis city and county remain separated by our state constitution. Various constitutional amendments, the “new” constitution of 1945, and general laws governing municipalities that the Legislature has enacted since the 1876 “divorce,” would make the constitution’s provisions for rearranging local governments outdated and lame for addressing St. Louis’ complicated mess.

Changing the constitution is the only means to achieve comprehensive reform that will meet the needs of a 21st century city and its citizens.

Under the recently released Better Together plan, the Missouri Constitution would be amended to establish a unified “metropolitan city” consisting of the area of St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis. The government of the metropolitan city would consist of a mayor and council members elected from 33 local districts in the city-county territory. Existing municipalities, including the city of St. Louis, would become “municipal districts” with local governing boards that will continue to provide basic services, such as parks and recreation, trash collection and fire protection, along with exercise local review of planning and zoning matters.

But critical governmental services would be unified:

• Police departments would be combined into a unified force, with districts throughout the city-county area, instead of 55 separate departments, many of which have been staffed by undertrained and underpaid officers.

• Because there would be one metropolitan city, and not 88 separate municipalities, a city and a county, there would be one municipal court, with divisions throughout the area.

• Economic development would be unified as well; no longer would communities in our area be competing with each other to see which ones could attract businesses by bidding against the other communities to see who can give away the most tax money.

Despite the advantages of a unified metro, some of our area mayors are urging that a plan be produced by a “board of freeholders” and submitted to the voters in St. Louis city and St. Louis County alone.

An explanation of the “freeholders” scheme will show that it is inadequate to the task. In the current constitution, a board of freeholders would be 19 citizens, nine of whom would be appointed by the county executive, nine by the St. Louis mayor, and one by the governor. The board would be charged to draw up a plan that would need to be approved by separate majorities of the city and the county voters at special elections, not at a primary or general election dates that attract the biggest voter turnouts.

But in the last 142 years since the “great divorce,” many obstacles have been created that would make a “freeholders” plan the governmental equivalent of rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs. Specifically, a freeholders’ plan can only supersede charter provisions, ordinances and laws relating specifically to the city and county. It cannot amend the constitution, nor can it override general laws passed by the Legislature that impede unification.

In areas related to municipal authority such as courts and police, a board of freeholder plan would offer little or no opportunity for innovative change, allowing municipalities to continue functioning largely as before, operating their own police and municipal courts and exercising powers derived from the constitution or general laws that cannot be superseded by a board of freeholders plan.

In short, a freeholders’ plan, even if one could be developed notwithstanding a dismal record of such efforts over the past century, would reinforce the status quo.

Only a statewide vote to change the Missouri Constitution would enable change of the breadth and scope needed to move the unified metro area forward. The Better Together proposal offers the chance to achieve a rational unification of our fragmented community. This requires a constitutional amendment to become a reality.

Michael A. Wolff is a former judge and chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, former dean and professor emeritus of St. Louis University Law School, and a senior policy adviser to the St. Louis County prosecutor. The views expressed here are his own. Wolff reviewed the completed draft of the initiative for Better Together in early January.

Read the article at St. Louis Post-Dispatch.