As a senior administrator and professor at the Washington University School of Medicine, Dr. Will Ross does not typically talk in the brash protestor’s language of shutting things down. But his experience as a board member for Better Together drove him to talk this way about the group pushing for a merger of St. Louis city and county.
Ross called “for a halt to Better Together’s activities and a complete restructuring of its leadership.” If not, then, “it needs to be shut down.”
This is not, however, a rejection of attempting to merge St. Louis city and county, simply a rejection of one failed leadership effort to do so.
“I am hoping we can build a grass roots coalition that can carry this effort forward,” said Ross, who is associate dean for Diversity Programs, principal officer for Community Partnerships, and professor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology at the Washington University School of Medicine.
“That means engaging community groups such as St. Louis Strong, starting a meaningful community conversation that includes all voices and opinions, especially that of the African American community, and completely restructuring the leadership at Better Together, if not frankly dismantling the organization altogether.”
Ross said that any organization that purports to believe in accountability would have been prompted to initiate “corrective action plans and realignment” in the light of Better Together’s “extensive failures” and resulting community outcry.
Ross gave a brief, greatest hits of those “extensive failures.”
“For example, the recommendation that Steve Stenger serve as interim metro mayor was a terrible mistake; indeed, some Task Force members voiced strong reservations about Mr. Stenger,” Ross said.
Better Together’s plan for the mayor of St. Louis to yield office to the St. Louis County executive – who would get to skip one election cycle as city-county consolidation was in progress – was met with public scorn, particularly in light of Stenger’s lack of leadership (and, as he soon admitted to a federal judge, public fraud). The organization was not prepared for it.
“Better Together was simply ill-prepared to take on a community marketing campaign after the Task Force report was released and should have been more responsive to community feedback,” Ross said.
“Better Together did not hire an ad agency to help with the rollout of the report, leaving it to take reactive and defensive postures in the face of withering criticism. The organization widely dismissed the negative community sentiment on the report, leading to an inability to promote a narrative of inclusion.”
Any “narrative of inclusion” was further shredded, in terms of African-American inclusion, when St. Louis County NAACP President John Gaskin announced the county chapter’s support of Better Together’s ballot initiative without disclosing that he had accepted a paid position to promote the ballot initiative, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch got Gaskin to admit.
Not all of the criticism of Better Together’s efforts was incensed by emotion, like the rejection of Stenger and anger at Gaskin, the effective dissolution of a City of St. Louis with its own identity, and floating the measure for a statewide vote without stipulating that it must pass locally to go into effect. Even much of Better Together’s data was easily called into question.
“Better Together never obtained an independent firm to verify its financial projections, leaving it to criticism that its numbers were not accurate,” Ross said. “And all that was before the Stenger fiasco and the misguided hiring of the St. Louis County NAACP director.”
However, Ross said, a more transparent and accountable grass roots coalition should be formed to take up the issue anew.
“I believe the issues before us are much larger than any individual or group,” Ross said. “It would be a mistake to disregard the elements of the Better Together report that are quite valid and operational.”