New Better Together Study Links Fragmentation to Citizen Disengagement

Report highlights systemic causes of voter disenfranchisement in the St. Louis region

St. Louis, MO (January 27, 2016) – The fourth and final General Administration Study from Better Together shows a strong correlation between our region’s fragmented structure and the disengagement of citizens.

“Proponents of fragmentation argue that this is the structure residents want,” said Dave Leipholtz, Director of Community-Based Studies for Better Together. “However, data gathered by Better Together does not support that conclusion. These numbers suggest that fragmentation breeds disconnection.”

In the most recent municipal election, only 9.41% of the voting-age population cast a ballot. This number is particularly alarming when compared with the national average for participation in local elections, which is 21%. In reviewing the data, Better Together found that 29 of the municipal mayors in St. Louis were elected with just 100 votes (or fewer).

Additionally, the very location of polling places leads to disenfranchisement. Eighteen polling places in St. Louis County are located within a police station – effectively discouraging any resident with an outstanding warrant from walking in, giving his or her name and address, and voting. (There are currently 450,000 warrants stemming from our region’s 52,000 municipal ordinances.)

“It’s important to realize that when we’re talking about warrants, we’re very often talking about someone who was simply unable to pay a traffic fine or a citation for a code violation and missed a court date,” said Leipholtz. “Warrants are so prolific that 27 municipalities in St. Louis County have accrued more outstanding warrants than they have residents. This disproportionately impacts municipalities with large populations of African-Americans and the poor.”

While proponents of fragmentation claim that this is the structure residents want, the new Better Together study suggests otherwise. A review of the processes for incorporating and disincorporating shows that it’s easy to incorporate but difficult (and sometimes impossible) to disincorporate. For example, the village of Champ was founded in 1959 upon one man’s vision to build an Olympic-quality stadium and an industrial park. Those plans never came to fruition, but 57 years later Champ still exists, with a population of thirteen.

Disincorporation, on the other hand, is arduous; in villages and fourth-class cities a disincorporation proposal can only go on the ballot following a petition of one-half of the city’s voters, and then the proposal must garner 60% of the votes in order to pass. Remarkably, there is no process at all for disincorporation of a third-class city. Wellston is one such city. Over the past several years, it has been plagued with a variety of issues ranging from the mayor stealing city employee paychecks to physical altercations between police officials. Yet, even if the citizens of Wellston organized to meet the high threshold needed in other towns, they would not be able to vote on dissolving their city government.

The Better Together report makes several recommendations for lowering the civic cost of fragmentation. First, municipal elections should be moved from April to the November ballot, thereby producing greater turnout and greater taxpayer savings. Additionally, the 18 polling places co-located in police stations should be moved, and the 21 st Circuit should call for a review of all outstanding municipal warrants. Finally, citizens must be truly empowered to have their governments reflect what they want. In order to meet this objective there must be a clear pathway toward disincorporation.

To read the report in full, visit www.bettertogetherstl.com/generaladministration .