While we believe that the St. Louis region might indeed be better together – that is, less fragmented and more unified politically, less segregated and more integrated residentially – we are absolutely certain that any effort to forge a more unified, less segregated St. Louis region would be better-positioned without the organization known as Better Together.
According to its January task force report on city-county governance reform, Better Together started with a commendable mission. “In 2013, at the urging of local civic leaders, Better Together was formed to take a fresh, analytical look at our fragmented community,” Better Together stated in its unsigned executive summary. “Better Together set out to identify the governmental, economic, and racial barriers that are impeding our community’s growth and prosperity.”
In its several research reports, Better Together remained aligned to this commendable mission and provided an enormous amount of valuable data. Many of us knew that St. Louis had, for example, too many police departments and municipal courts for these essential government functions to be provided equitably and efficiently, but Better Together’s reports provided what was indeed a “fresh, analytical” and piercing view into just how inequitable and inefficient these and many other government services are provided in this region.
The problems – which we believe to be irrevocable and fatal – emerged when Better Together pivoted from research into what is wrong toward prescription for what would be better. That is when the organization fell fatally foul of its mission, as stated, again, in that unsigned task force report: “Better Together’s mission has been to promote unity, trust, efficiency, and accountability and act as a catalyst to remove those barriers that are impeding our community’s ability to truly thrive.” Whatever unity, trust, or accountability the organization intended to promote was shattered by the almost laughably terrible proposal for reform it presented in its ballot initiative and the method proposed for passing it: statewide, without any provision that it also had to pass locally to go into effect.
Before a flurry of rewrites of its ballot initiative, which further destroyed any remaining public trust in Better Together or its motives, the organization was asking Missouri voters to reform how St. Louis city and county are governed, knowing that local voters were extremely unlikely to approve the measure. If successful, Missouri voters would have empowered an inexperienced, inept, unpopular and – it seemed then and has since been admitted before a federal judge – corrupt county executive to govern the current City of St. Louis, whose voters had never elected this unimpressive, fraudulent man for dog catcher, let alone mayor. This unelected fraud would have taken power after skipping one election. All African Americans currently elected to public office would have been disempowered. The proposal was so horrifically bad in racial equity terms that the Rev. Starsky Wilson – a man sufficiently invested in the status quo to have accepted a governor’s appointment to co-chair the Ferguson Commission – derided it as “apartheid.”
Better Together was rendered utterly without value as an institution that aims to lead a public effort for transformative regional change. Its research reports remain essential data to support a new effort to redraw the regional map to create a more equitable, effective and inclusive form of local governance. We believe this remapping must include education, which Better Together shied away from – for understandable reasons, but it was one clear, early sign that greater racial equity was not a driving motive for the organization, for our shameful inequity starts with how we educate our children.
We understand why so many progressives – and nearly all African Americans with the slightest clue – are dancing on the grave of Better Together. It was a dangerous and misguided organization once it turned to prescribing change. However, when it was reporting our current dysfunction, it was indeed fresh and analytical, and for that reason we thank Better Together for its service – and beg it to get out of the way, now, so we can devise a much better way for us to all live and work together.