Better Together plan needs faith leader input

Barbara Finch

BY BARBARA L. FINCH

It’s both fascinating and painful to watch members of the St. Louis business community join with selected public officials and others to roll out the new Better Together plan, which aims to combine St. Louis city and county into a metro government.

Fascinating, because the image of St. Louis becoming the ninth-largest city in the country and all of our disparate, fractious factions coming together to sing “Kumbaya” is truly enticing. 

And painful, because we have been talking about this forever, and the individuals who put themselves in charge of this effort haven’t seemed to learn much from past efforts.

It’s unfortunate that those in charge did not hear a talk by Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who spoke at Congregation Temple Israel on Nov. 29 as part of the Jewish Federation’s Sh’ma Listen! Speaker Series. Pesner is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism based in Washington, D.C. In his St. Louis speech, he issued both a primer and a plea: a recommendation for how changes can be made to achieve a more just and equitable community, and a request that listeners get busy promptly.

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The key to making successful social change is “all about the relationships,” Pesner said.

People can’t make systemic change without working with others. Establishing relationships early in a process enables leadership to surface and flourish. These leaders can then organize the relationships, which results in collective power, which can be transformational.

It’s interesting to speculate about relationships in light of the brouhaha that is surfacing about the Better Together plan. What attempts were made to involve individuals in St. Louis county municipalities before the plan was drafted? Were local elected officials given an opportunity for input? What about those who serve on boards and commissions? What about religious leaders and those who head nonprofit groups? What about educators and small-business owners?

It’s deeply troubling that the knee-jerk reaction to the outline of the plan has been so negative. Attention has been paid to the public relations aspects of the rollout (for example, making the announcement at the Cheshire Inn, which straddles the city-county line). But people whose lives may be profoundly changed by this proposal deserve more than a clever PR stunt. They deserve a voice before they vote.

It’s obvious that the city-county arrangement we have today is dysfunctional. There are more municipalities in St. Louis County than there are countries in Europe. Some of them work well for their residents, but many of them do not. We all deserve a government that works for all of us. Our problems are enormous. 

But we have yet to hear whether, or how, the Better Together plan will help the 5,000 children in city schools who are homeless. We’ve not been told how the plan might affect the 7,000 vacant properties in the city. We’re told that a new form of government will better address health disparities, police problems, neighborhood revitalization and violence. 

But how? If the devil is in the details, we ought to at least know what the devil looks like before we head to the polls.

While I fault the Better Together organization for proposing a plan that has been written and presented in a top-down manner, I also fault the team for developing a proposal that will require a statewide vote in order to implement. It seems incredibly cynical to come up with a scheme that will require residents of Sikeston and Sedalia to vote on a plan that will affect only St. Louisans. Perhaps if a broader consensus had been obtained, a plan might have emerged that would have avoided this manipulative approach. 

While there are many concerns about the Better Together proposal, some good things are happening as a result of its release. At least people are talking about some of the issues that constrain our current form of government. At least more people are beginning to focus on the inequities that many of our neighbors deal with on a routine basis. And perhaps we are beginning to see who wants to talk about our problems with care and concern and who wants to dismiss them with distain and contempt.

“The organized faith community is the only thing that has the power to lead on social justice issues,” said Pesner, who  encouraged his audience to look at issues through a moral lens and to be mindful of the difference between action and activity. 

“Stop just doing things,” he urged. “Our issues today need political intervention, because politics is how society makes decisions about its values.”

The Better Together plan is more than political intervention; it will result in political upheaval that will touch the lives of every single resident of the city and county. Whether it will result in a more just, equitable society for all is yet to be determined. 

While they don’t seem to have been involved in drafting the plan, let’s hope our faith leaders can help us drill down through the details (and the details that are not there) and figure out the morality of this proposal before we have to go to the polls.

Barbara L. Finch is a former public relations consultant who co-founded Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice. She is a member of Central Reform Congregation.