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Aldermen approve bill on election to stop ward reduction

CITY HALL – By  a narrow vote, the Board of Alderman approved last week a measure seeking an election on whether to stop the planned reduction of the number of wards to 14 from 28.

But the past record of Mayor Lyda Krewson indicates she may veto the bill passed Friday. Krewson has long supported a smaller Board of Aldermen. 

Mayor Krewson was an original cosponsor of this issue at the Board of Aldermen and has been a longtime supporter of ward reduction. That’s been pretty well documented,” Krewson’s Director of Communications Jacob Long wrote in an email.

However, “We don’t have to announce what we’ll do with a bill before it even reaches our desk,” Long noted.

The vote in Friday’s Zoom meeting was 15-13. The only one who didn’t cast a vote was 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer. Right after the vote was announced, Spencer said she had been having technical problems and asked Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed if she could cast a “no” vote.

Following a testy exchange between Reed and Spencer, both of whom are running for Mayor, Reed said that wouldn’t be possible. 

“Find some other time to run,” Reed said. “Your technology issues are your technology issues.”

In 2012, residents approved a change in the City Charter to cut the number of wards and aldermen to 14 from 28, beginning in 2022. The bill passed on Friday would ask voters in the April 6 general election whether they want to change the charter again to keep the number of wards and aldermen at 28.  

African-American aldermen have long opposed the reduction because they worry it might cut the amount of representation they would have. Citing the extra demands for service in their area, they say it would be harder to handle an area twice as big as they have now. 

Twentieth-First Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad introduced the bill in June 2020. The bill received initial approval, one step away from final passage, in July 2020. But Muhammad held the bill from further consideration in September and brought it back for a final vote at Friday’s meeting. 

In separate action, the board voted 20-9 to give initial approval to a bill asking for a nonbinding vote in the April 6 general election on whether to close the controversial Medium Security Institution, also known as the workhorse, at 7600 Hall Street. The final vote could be held at this Friday’s meeting.

A bill passed last summer directed the city commissioner of corrections to start the process of closing the workhouse as a detention center by the end of 2020.  The city would use any money saved for a fund to help prisoners re-enter society. 

Those who want to close the workhouse say those in the facility could be transferred to the St. Louis Justice Center downtown or jails outstate.

The workhouse remains open because efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 caused the city to keep both of its detainment facilities open, according to information in the bill. 

Opponents, most of whom were progressives, said another vote wasn’t needed, since the board already approved a bill to close the workhouse last summer.

 “This is only a delaying tactic. We’ve already voted for it,” 18th Ward Alderman Jesse Todd said. 

“At some point, we’re elected to make decisions. Otherwise, we could put everything we voted for on the ballot,” said 11th Ward Alderman Sarah Martin.

Not closing by the end of the year was “an absolute slap in the face,” Spencer said. 

Proponents of an election said the election wouldn’t stop the process of closing and could provide direction in the process. They also said last summer’s bill didn’t say the facility would close by Dec. 31.

“I think it would be eye-opening either way,” said 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, the bill’s sponsor. “I was finding that many people in my community were not really aware of it, and they were against it.”  

Twenty-Third Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro said he always supported putting things on the ballot.

“Closing the workhouse is not criminal justice reform,” Muhammad asserted. 

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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