DOWNTOWN – Better Together, the group working to merge St. Louis city and county governments, has pulled its plan to put the measure before Missouri voters in 2020. At least that’s their intention for now.
Much of the controversy surrounding the plan centered on its seeking of a statewide vote that would have put it in place whether St. Louis city and county voters approved the measure or not. Pressure was growing to make changes, with state lawmakers offering up bills to block any move that, in their view, disenfranchised the very people who would be governed under the new system.
After weeks of defending their position, Better Together and their sister organization, Unite STL, apparently gave in on Monday, announcing their intention to find a way for local voters to decide on a merger.
“Current Missouri law limits our ability to make the kinds of changes needed to put our region on a good path to prosperity,” said Chairman Mark Wrighton. “So, we’re going to study what changes in the law are needed to enable the voters of the City and County to make the reforms they need and support.”
The proposal has encountered a run of bad press since it was unveiled early this year. Most recently, the indictment and guilty plea on corruption charges by former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger cast a shadow on Better Together. The group’s original plan had locked in Stenger to serve as an unelected metro mayor had the measure passed in 2020. The group scrambled to change that language as scandal began swirling around Stenger and several county agencies. Many observers felt Stenger’s indictment and guilty plea represented a blow the merger plan might not recover from.
In their announcement, they acknowledged their “Stenger problem.”
“The corruption in St. Louis County government also disrupted (Better Together’s) efforts. Some people viewed it as proof that local government must change, while others believe the former county executive’s involvement tainted the process.
“This should be about our collective future, what is best for our citizens. We hope to work with the community, Mayor Krewson and County Executive Page to identify changes to our process that returns the focus to that,” Wrighton was quoted as saying in the statement.”
On Twitter, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, an early and vocal supporter of the merger effort, said she was among those who asked Better Together and Unite STL to pause.
“With the turmoil in the county, now is not the time. I believe fragmentation limits progress for our residents & I continue to support a city/county merger. We can revisit this in the future.”
But the problems didn’t begin with the Stenger scandal. Just days before his indictment, the national NAACP suspended its St. Louis county president, John Gaskin, after he threw the local organization’s support behind the merger plan without revealing he had taken a paid position with Better Together. Many perceived the situation as an example of Better Together lacking transparency, something that had come up repeatedly as critics and journalists delved into the fine print of the merger proposal.
Despite the string of apparent missteps, however, the central issue with most critics was the idea that St. Louis city and county voters did not control their own destiny. That was the tone in a tweet by 8th Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice reacting to the move.
“Listen. Rethink. Find middle ground and a plan that actually works for our region,” she wrote. “We can make our region better, but it has to be with all of us involved and be fully fleshed out. There’s still a lot of community work to be done.”
The move leaves pro-merger forces in a regrouping mode, but they fired a parting shot across the bow of their opposition, saying in their release that their mission has not changed, and essentially making a declaration that they’ll be back.
“The self-interested forces fighting change should not cheer today,” Wrighton said in the statement. “They should know that we are more committed than ever to fighting for the changes needed to modernize our government so everyone in our region has a local government that keeps them safe, responds to their needs and holds down their taxes.”