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New, nonbinding vote on workhouse may be on April ballot

CITY HALL – A proposal to ask the public what it thinks about having an election on whether to close the controversial Medium Security Institution moved forward at Friday’s Board of Aldermen meeting.

The board voted 16-11 to give final approval to a bill calling for a nonbinding referendum on the question, “Should the City of St. Louis close the Division of Corrections Medium Security Institution incarceration center located at 7600 Hall Street, commonly referred to as the Workhouse?”

Jacob Long, director of communications for Mayor Lyda Krewson, wouldn’t indicate whether Krewson might sign the bill or veto it. “We will let you know when we are ready to share our decision on that legislation,” Long said in an email.

The bill, sponsored by 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, calls for the measure to be on the ballot in the April 6 city election.

“This bill simply puts on the ballot whether or not the constituents would like to close the workhouse,” Boyd said.

But opponents noted that the board already voted to close the workhouse, effective at the end of 2020.

“I vehemently oppose sending a resolution back to the voters when we need to do our jobs,” Eighth Ward Alderman Annie Rice said. “I think that we have already voted as a board. We are the representatives of our constituents, and we need to take the next steps to follow through with our commitment.”

“I think that if this is going to go on the ballot, then fine, we will speak to our constituents about it,” Rice said. But she said the legislation calling for closing the workhouse was a piece of criminal justice reform.

“We have within our purview as aldermen and constituents the ability to pass these ordinances,” she added.

For her part, 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Green said the legislation on the nonbinding vote on the workhouse was “another mechanism to kick the can down the road.”

Taking the measure to the voters at this time is moot, Green said.

“We have the ability to defund [the workhouse], to close it, to do our jobs, to live up to our previous commitment without this needing to go to the voters,” Green said.

However, “I’m indifferent in a lot of ways on whether this goes to the voters. The voters are going to say to close this down,” Green said. “The campaign work of the groups opposing the workhouse will do better than those that favor keeping it open.”

 “I’m happy to be on the same ballot,” said Green, who is running for re-election in the April election. “This is going to drive out a lot of progressive voters in this city.”

But Boyd said this was not kicking the can down the road. It doesn’t interfere with the process, he said: “It only validates the ‘close the workhouse’ work that has been done.”

Nineteenth Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis said people needed to understand many things about closing the workhouse.

“I’m looking forward to overall discussions that can go even further, and it’ll help people understand a lot of things,” she said.

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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