As a member of Better Together’s City-County Governance Task Force, I concur with the general sentiment that our cause needs a serious restructuring.
I remain a staunch advocate of St. Louis city-county unification and have been so since 1995. That is when I first learned of a report on effective city governance co-authored by Ambassador George Herbert (Bert) Walker and late U.S. Senator Tom Eagleton at the request of then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. Walker eventually became the founder of Better Together, funding it with an initial gift of $100,000.
I respect Walker’s work, and the City-County Governance Task Force borrowed heavily on his vision as we incorporated input from members of the St. Louis region and cities such as Nashville, Louisville, and Indianapolis that embraced regional governance. That report, even with its flaws, provided a framework to address effective governance and the social ills that have plagued the St. Louis region.
However deep divisions across the region have precluded the serious debate needed to move the task force report forward.
Since its release in January, there have been many criticisms of the task force report – some factual and some intentionally divisive. For instance, a careful reading of the Missouri Constitution will indeed reveal the requirement of a statewide vote to restructure municipal courts and police districts.
Nonetheless and most importantly, the community has spoken on the importance of a racial equity lens in restructuring the St. Louis region, and we have heard them. Race and racism permeate all forms of life in our fair city and county.
I personally believe there is merit in having a strong mayoral system and a large, inclusive metro council to govern a metro city that can allocate resources across the region according to need. However, our longstanding history of structural racism, segregation, and discrimination leads the African-American community to doubt whether the newly envisioned form of government would truly function in its best interest. That skepticism is justifiable, and we can only allay the deep-seated distrust by creating a structure of governance that ensures no one in our region is disenfranchised.
The recent, fast-moving developments – including the indictment, resignation and guilty plea of County Executive Steve Stenger and the revelation that St. Louis County NAACP President John Gaskin III had been hired by Better Together’s advocacy arm Unite STL when he announced his endorsement of Better Together – have indicated the need for a pivot and deep reflection on how to move this region forward.
As someone deeply invested in the health and stability of our region, I feel this is a good time for all of us to work in a forward-thinking, collaborative manner to construct a governance model that reflects the genuine concerns of the African American community. Concurrently, we must gain the trust of all citizens in our region who yearn for meaningful change.
There is much at stake for the St. Louis region. This may be the only time in my lifetime when there will be an opportunity to fundamentally reshape this region by undoing the myopic, ill-fated 1876 Missouri constitutional amendment that severed St. Louis city from the county. I still think we can do this. However, we must do so in a manner that is transparent and inclusive, that provides accountability, and earns the trust of the full body politic.
We can no longer afford to chisel around the edges in incremental fashion to fix the problems in our region. The easy things have been done. For the sake of St. Louis, let us roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work, with passion, trust, and integrity.
Will Ross, MD, MPH, a member of Better Together’s City-County Governance Task Force, is associate dean for Diversity Programs, a professor of medicine, and the principal officer for Community Partnerships at Washington University School of Medicine.