The Great Divorce: Forum seeks ways to end divide between St. Louis city, county

DOWNTOWN  – Will the city and the county ever get back together?

That was the question of the night last Tuesday as spectators crowded into the auditorium at the St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive St., for a forum sponsored by the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists and the St. Louis Press Club.

Entitled “The Pros and Cons of Ending the City of St. Louis/St. Louis County Divide,” the forum was an open discussion among leaders from across the region, with several well-respected journalists acting as moderators.

For two hours, two separate panels engaged in a debate that has plagued the city of St. Louis for more than 100 years. 

Would the reunion of the city and county be a success? Depending on which side of the city you’re from, your perspective and answer may be different. 

The first segment of the night focused on what caused the divide.

In the 1870s, the city was the area’s powerhouse, with nearly ten times as much taxable wealth as the other parts of the county. City residents wanted more control of their affairs, and a push was started to separate from the county. After a contentious campaign, a narrow vote throughout the county and city, and a recount, the “Great Divorce” was finalized.

Was a solid government structure put in place after the Great Divorce of 1876? Does it currently work for the region?

Better Together, the nonprofit organization that drafted the recent proposal in support of the merger, served as a point of reference throughout the forum.

“The idea that you would go to a statewide vote to vote on what is truly a local issue is not only against our Democratic process, it’s un-American,” said panelist Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metropolitan St. Louis, in the first half of the forum.

Others argue that although Better Together may have had good intentions originally, over time its intended effectiveness became clouded by suggested motives of local leaders and those working behind the scenes.

Audience member Harvey Schneider of west St. Louis County said, “I think that the Better Together movement failed because they kept saying it would produce change but they didn’t do a good job of telling us how the change would benefit us.”

“Change itself doesn’t always result in a good outcome, so any other movement that tries to do that is going to have to convince us that their proposed change will benefit us as a community,” Schneider added.

Todd Swanstrom, the Des Lee Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was a panelist. He said at the forum: “I decided that I was going to be neutral … because I thought that it was a great opportunity to have a discussion in the region. I thought it was a great focusing event and put our attention on an issue in the region, which is government.” 

Panelists also listed reasons why the merger could have been a potential success. Economic growth, certain political advantages, as well as the opportunity to secure good leadership were all listed as potential benefits of the reunion of the city and county.

“What prompted this to start? It’s got to be about the dollar,” long-time St. Louis resident Patrice Jenkins-King said as she listened to the panelists. 

King said she wanted to know what the advantages of the merger would be, which prompted her to attend the forum. 

“I wanted to come and get some facts on some levels,” King said. “Good education should be universal, city, county, whatever. That, to me, is the main thing.” 

The second half of the forum focused on the future of the city and county. A new idea is to establish a Board of Freeholders that would give residents in St. Louis city and county a voice during the potential re-merging.

Shelley Welsch, former mayor of University City, gave the audience the guidelines for establishing the Board of Freeholders, a process that is already in the works.

Welsch said that under the Missouri state constitution, a board can be formed if a petition with enough signatures is submitted. Fifteen thousand signatures would be needed from registered voters in the county and an additional 5,000 signatures from city voters.

After those signatures are certified, gathered and submitted, two city leaders would have 10 days to appoint nine members each to the board. The governor of Missouri would have 10 days to appoint one person, creating a 19-member board appointed by three different bodies. 

Though it is apparent that the merging of the city and county would not be an overnight fix, many believe that it would be a start.

“There is no problem or set of problems that the St. Louis region has that will be fixed by rearranging or reforming the government,” said panelist Mike Jones, former policy aide to then-Mayor Clarence Harmon. “Conversely, there is no [problem] that we have that can be fixed with the existing structure.”

Jones said that reforming the government structure would make the government more efficient but wouldn’t result in better outcomes

Panelists and audience members agreed that the best way for both the city and county to move forward was to put experienced leaders in place who were confident in their skills and abilities and had the best interest of the people at heart.

Although the original proposal by Better Together was scrapped earlier this year, the debate surrounding the merging of the city and county remains, probably for years to come.

Bria Gremillion

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