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The Jaco Report, Ep. 19: Failure of Better Together opens door for more cooperation

The collapse of the Better Together plan for unifying St. Louis City and County may have actually opened the door to more cooperation between St. Louis City and County, including using a 19th century law to help consolidate some government functions and get citizen input on which problems are the most urgent.

Appearing on The Jaco Report, City Alderwoman Annie Rice and head of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, Pat Kelly, agreed that reviving something called the Board of Freeholders could be the best way to go forward.

Ironically, the Board of Freeholders was used in 1876 when the City withdrew from the County, and could be used now to help identify problems and consolidate services. Under the law creating it, a Board of Freeholders is a 19-member commission—nine appointed by the Mayor, nine by the County Executive, and one by the Governor. Rice and Kelly say the failure of Better Together shows that top-down solutions to the region’s problems won’t work, and that the Freeholders could be used to hold extensive public hearings, and then design solutions to problems identified by citizens.

“This board is charged with having public meetings for up to 12 months to solicit public input and then make a recommendation to the voters of any kind of structural change,” said Kelly, whose Municipal League represents towns throughout the County. “It’s actually how the Metropolitan Sewer District was created in 1954.”

Rice agreed the Board of Freeholders option might work, as opposed to better Together, which drew up a detailed plan in secret for unifying the City and County, and then tried to present it to the public. The 8th Ward Alderwoman noted that instead of doing that, the Freeholders could be mandated with seeking public input, then designing a plan around that.

Rice said she believes the County and the City are ready to work together. “We’re cued up as a region to use some of this information to work together to solve some of our problems,” she said.

Rice said, while much of the research gathered by Better Together is “extremely valuable”, it failed because it tried to sell area residents on a finished plan rather than getting their input first, then designing a plan. She also took issue with the Better Together contention that government fragmentation is the region’s biggest problem. The Alderwoman instead said that racism, redlining, and discrimination are the anchors holding the St. Louis region back.

“We have to talk about the racism. We have to talk about how structurally the racism is built into our very existence,” Rice said. “There is a reason that certain parts of our area have declined, why businesses aren’t there. That’s because racist policies, like redlining, have stalled any economic growth.”

Kelly said that, unlike a few years ago, white County residents are willing to grapple with uncomfortable topics like racism, and that Better Together’s failure is a perfect opportunity to select a Board of Freeholders to hold town halls across the County and City to find out which problems are most important to residents, then devise a plan to address them.

“It goes back to why we need to come together and focus on what is the problem and how do we solve it?” Kelly noted, saying that, for example, the Municipal League is in a favor of the City rejoining the County as a municipality.

It goes back to why we need to come together and focus on what is the problem and how do we solve it?

We attempted to get a representative from Better Together to take part in the discussion, but no spokesperson was made available.

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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