Better Together? Local Question, Local Vote

Better Together? Local Question, Local Vote

Jewish Light Editorial

Ever since their so-called Great Divorce in 1876, St. Louis and St. Louis County have been separate governmental entities. Despite several efforts, particularly in recent decades, any move toward consolidation has stalled.

Now, a group called Better Together, funded with big bucks from billionaire activist Rex Sinquefield, is ready to unveil a new plan to put the city and county back together. No one can pass judgment on what the proposal says until details are made public, but one feature that is expected to be part of the proposal should make local voters skeptical: Whatever blueprint emerges will be put to a vote statewide. 

The decision should be made closer to home.

Plenty of history will influence the upcoming move toward unification. Back in 1876, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States, a boom town with a population of 800,000, including about 40,000 Jews. St. Louis County, while much larger in territory at 500 square miles to the city’s 62, was a comparative backwater, with a population less than half that of the city.

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Prosperous and self-confident, a group of civic leaders decided to shed the costly burden of being a part of St. Louis County. A “Scheme of Separation” was drafted and put to a popular vote. At first, it seemed to have been defeated by the voters, but recounts showed it had passed. That fateful decision, which seemed to make sense at the time, has been regretted by many ever since.

Over the years, the demographic realities of the region changed dramatically. The once robust population of the city fell to about 300,000, while St. Louis County’s population grew from about 200,000 in 1940 to more than 800,000 by the 1970s.

As the population of the county grew, so did its number of political subdivisions into what the late County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos called a jurisdictional jungle with 90 cities, towns and villages, and more than 30 police departments, 23 firefighting entities and 22 school districts.

The city was hemmed in by a ring of cities that it could not annex. At the same time, it was very easy in the county to form new cities and towns, including substantial ones such as Chesterfield and tiny ones such as the Village of Champ, which had only 50 residents when it was incorporated.

In the 1920s, a group of local boosters called the Million Population Club came forward with a plan to reunite the city and county under one umbrella, including all governmental functions except school districts. That ambitious plan lost at the polls.

Further efforts to put the region’s Humpty Dumpty back together met a similar fate, with opposition or indifference. Cooperation grew in areas such as the Metropolitan Sewer District, the Junior College District and the Zoo-Museum District, but actually joining governments remained a sticking point with people in both the city and county.

How has the local Jewish community fared with divided local government? For decades, much of the Jewish population, which now numbers 60,100, moved westward along a central corridor from the city into places including  University City, Clayton and Ladue, then even farther west. In more recent years, Jews have moved back into the city and into older suburbs such as Webster Groves and Kirkwood.

Through the years, local Jewry has thrived in both St. Louis and St. Louis County, taking leadership positions in commerce and business and supporting the arts and culture generously. Jews will no doubt continue to serve prominent roles in whatever form local government ends up taking.

But everyone has chafed under the fragmented governmental structure spawned by the city-county divorce. Suspicion on both sides has prevented efforts to heal the split from gaining much traction. City residents worry that the county wants to take over; county residents fear that the problems of the city will become theirs.

How legitimate those fears are, and how well they can be overcome by the Better Together proposal, will be seen in coming months. A big-money campaign is expected to push the idea hard. And because many Missouri laws are written so they apply only to cities the size of St. Louis, the final say may have to be a decision on the state level.

But that doesn’t mean it has to go to a popular vote. Enabling legislation might be able to keep the fate of the city and county in the hands of the people who live here, as it should be. Without the assurance that our future will be decided by those who will be most directly affected, the latest effort at reconciliation after the great divorce is likely to meet with the same skepticism, opposition and ultimate defeat that earlier plans have drawn.

Voters in St. Robert or Ste. Genevieve, or even in St. Charles or St. Peters, shouldn’t be able to determine the future of St. Louis and St. Louis County, any more than voters in the city and county should have authority over government in those Missouri towns. 

Would St. Louis and St. Louis County be better together? It’s a local question. It should be decided by a local vote.