Jaco: The death of Better Together

On its face, Better Together was never an awful proposal. With 89 municipalities, 56 police departments, dozens of money-grubbing municipal courts, entrenched racism, and an economy and population that have both stagnated, or shrunk, for decades, St. Louis City and County obviously need to do something.

Consolidating services and governments is definitely one way to do it. The North County Police Co-Operative merged several small suburban police departments. Six North County towns consolidated their municipal courts into one court system. The Metropolitan Sewer District was created in 1954 to consolidate sewage and storm water control efforts in the City and County. All of those mergers have worked out fine, have become more efficient, and saved taxpayers money.

Better Together didn’t collapse because the idea of consolidating governments and services is necessarily a bad one. It fell apart because its plans were put together in secret by people on the payroll of a libertarian billionaire who never saw a government he didn’t want to privatize, or a tax he didn’t want to eliminate.

It failed because it would have gutted the city’s primary revenue source, the one per-cent earnings/income tax. It cratered because it called for the St. Louis County Executive now headed to federal prison to head the unified city of 1.3 million people. It imploded because it required the voters of Climax Springs, Conception Junction, and other outstate Missouri centers of culture and commerce to approve merging St. Louis City and County.

It disintegrated because it failed to take racial animosity and turf into account, as black politicos complained African-American voting strength would be diluted and white flight County residents groused that they wanted no part of the City where, in their minds, (mostly) black gunmen run amok.

But it mainly tumbled into a steaming pile of rubble because it was a top-down, elitist effort hammered together over years in closed-door meetings by movers and shakers on Rex Sinquefield’s payroll, and then revealed to the unwashed public like a tardy Christmas present with some assembly required.

Public town hall meetings staged by Better Together ran into a steady stream (more like a firehose) of opposition immediately, because Better Together got it precisely backwards. They put together a complicated, unwieldy, and hugely unpopular plan in secrecy, and then tried to sell it in public.

Civic reform movements are hardly ever top-down. As the election of new, young reformers from Wesley Bell to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows, bottom-up movements have more legitimacy, and more staying power.

Apparently, none of the minions and civic worthys on Sinquefield’s payroll were competent enough to ask two basic questions: is this necessary, and why not make the public part of this from the very start?

The “is this necessary?” question leads to several conclusions. One, as pointed out by UMSL Professor Terry Jones, is that fragmented government doesn’t hold St. Louis back. Racism does. Atlanta became a world-class city as the St. Louis region declined by repudiating its racist past, and explicitly agreeing that “The City Too Busy to Hate” wouldn’t be just an Atlanta civic motto, but a way of life.

Another answer, posited by writer Jake Rebe in his InMost City blog, would be to take a cue from MSD, and convince the public that a specific problem—whether sewage or police services—could be solved by consolidation.

The second question—“Should the public be part of this from the very start?”—has only one answer: hell, yes. Dozens of town halls across the City and County should have been held before any plan was proposed, so that citizen input identified problems and possible solutions. Public feedback should always have been incorporated into the plan itself.

None of that happened because the agenda underlying Better Together was always corrupt. And that is the slash taxes and privatize government services mantra of the man whose cash paid for this entire snipe hunt. Rex Sinquefield’s years-long drive to get rid of the earnings tax, and have the government provide minimal services, was the philosophical underpinning of the entire enterprise.

Luckily, Sinquefield seems to have more money than brains, and so was willing to dump truckloads of cash in the laps of consultants and operatives who designed a plan that anyone outside of their closed room could have told them was doomed to fail.

If civic reform succeeds, it’ll be a bottom-up affair. That means transparency and public input right from the start. We may not do Better Together. But we can do better. Together.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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