I once read it took the English over 100 years to adopt the use of the fork while dining. The English saw the fork as an extension of what they called French effeminacy and argued the proper way to eat is by using one’s own hands.
And, at one time in France, women were believed to be of ill repute if they were seen out at night dining. It took a lady of high status to join friends in a very public display to change people’s minds. In this story, she is a prop for the purpose of public relations in, what I remember to be, a new fine dining restaurant seeking to succeed. This one event had a remarkable change, not only on the culture but on the economy of France. The French, long known for their love of spectacle, created a market for spectacle based on what could have been a scandal. It is difficult to criminalize what, and who, we love.
We often see change as a right. Change is analogous to choice and if we choose mashed over fried potatoes is of little consequence until we decide to have rice. But, can we get rice? The feelings are not the same when we are told we will be getting rice when we want fries. People like options, but they don’t like being force fed.
This is similar to the state St. Louis is in right now. We have nothing but change on the menu today. The idea of having to adapt to change is fed by fear and that is a bitter meal.
We are trying to welcome new-comers to our region to grow. Any region trying to compete has population growth on the menu. This includes growing our foreign born population. St. Louis is an insular place with tremendous civic pride. We support our communities so much that we are often in the top 1% in charitable giving in the whole US.
Some are also trying to effect social change. There are big fights between progressives and conservatives in the region wanting to see more equitable solutions from local government. Ferguson, a small suburban city in the region, has been a catalyst and a choke point in this effort.
A police shooting of a young, unarmed, Black man in Ferguson launched protests and conversation about what our region was doing wrong. The event came four days after the first Black county executive was ousted from office under a dubious campaign calling him corrupt. I was a member of that administration and remember the chorus singing the tune of corruption, which was nothing but dog whistles.
But before these two events there was unemployment through a prolonged downturn in the economy. The Black community was hit harder than most and inequity would be the timber which would soon ignite into fire.
And, just before the events in Ferguson would become a symbol of dis-function in the region, a group called Better Together (BT) would launch their efforts to restructure the city and county governments and limit the authority of local governments like Ferguson. By erasing the imaginary lines of city boundaries in favor of a unified regional government, they argue a common voice can lead us to a better position in the global economy.
Their early internal polling showed that the region is against the change BT want, but not necessarily the rest of the state. BT saw that, after hearing messages about the benefits and problems with status quo St. Louis, statewide voters moved to be more favorable to voting for unification compared to the voters in the region.
The poll identified the vehicle of change: a statewide vote. And now, this is the biggest fight in the region. In fact, regional consolidation includes the fight for equity and the growth of the region. But as much as a consolidated region can improve equity, mostly through spreading planning decisions like low-income housing and improving access to workforce development and jobs for all, consolidation means concentrated power.
Concentrated power is a big part of what people are against. Until yesterday, it was certainly what I had been against because I don’t trust the person who would have been running the whole show. The BT plan was to skip the regularly scheduled election and instill the current county executive into the newly created metro mayor position. Not only does the new position benefit from stronger powers to govern and make decisions the position includes a greater portion of the metro area and limits the local control of existing municipalities within that area.
Fortunately, the current county executive is being investigated by a federal grand jury for contract rigging and will not most-likely not be continuing his “service” for much longer. But the structure of the government and power of the metro mayor do not change, just the first design on who would conceptually lead the region.
Most people are against a centralized government that would largely erase the hyper-local city governments in St. Louis where people reside. This is why a statewide election is the only possible vehicle to get the outcome BT wants. Restructuring the St. Louis region is not in the interest of the people who live their today. It is in the interest of the people who will come after them. The quaint communities that makeup St. Louis are the embodiment of living nostalgia. But they are all past their peak.
The statewide vote raises serious issues of self-determination and rights. It is certainly an infringement on the concept of government for the people and by the people. Here, self-determination is in conflict with the notion that cities are creatures of the state. The state does have an interest in the future well-being of St. Louis. But does it have the right to direct a change that has been in conversations for over 100 years?
We have to acknowledge the slippery-slope and comparative analysis fallacies that go along with this discussion, but we will attend to them at another time. These are statements that if they do it to St. Louis, they can do it to X and then the comparison of X city either in the region or another state. These hypotheticals are pointless because they are too simple and ignore the complexities of regions, especially in St. Louis.
The present policy Better Together is pushing is all about control. The City of Champ is a model example. It exists in St. Louis County and was built on the idea of being a domed Olympic stadium. That never came to fruition, and the 518-acre incorporated village became a landfill. It is a corporate town with just enough residents (14 or so) to keep it from being dis-incorporated (everyone who lives their works for or is related to workers of the company).
As it stands, Champ has full self-determination as prescribed by state law. But a landfill is a messy business when it comes to governing. Consolidation would likely mean a change in tax structure for the business and possibly reconfigured regulations. Mostly it means a wholesale shift in their political power.
Proof of this comes from those who would most likely want to see this operation change. Whether or not an environmentalist lives near an environmental issue is rarely of consequence to them. Changing the structure of governance would have a real impact on the possibility of regulation change in this instance. Businesses tend to want something close to complete self-determination for themselves.
The policy implications are such that there are community benefits as well as concerns. For the few people who live in Champ, it is pretty evident that they lose a lot of their voice for a government that attends to their concerns. They may start getting more services, but it changes the fact that it is actually most consequential to them and the greater St. Louis region. That is, why live here?
In some rural communities, cities are fighting for their lives against laws regulating CAFO’s. A CAFO, or concentrated feeding operation, produces a lot of environmental waste and disruption in the form of dust, runoff and foul smelling air. They aren’t good neighbors. The legislature in Missouri has been debating legislation which would make it impossible for counties to regulate CAFO’s. This is good for these businesses but not for the greater community.
The same could be said of the Better Together proposal. Most industries we have in St. Louis would certainly benefit from having one government and code. Policies like these, pushed for the benefit of businesses, can have dramatic effects on communities.
But, just as most people like a good steak, our trash has to go somewhere. How do we meet these needs while maintaining control of our community. There is a lot of value in noticing similar constituencies between residents fighting CAFO’s and residents fighting BT.
BT claims one regional government will implement efficiencies that don’t exist today. But this is also a false argument because of the vast majority of municipalities in St. Louis County contract with the county for inspections on electrical, plumbing, building and other codes. This means those cities are mostly using the code adopted by the county already.
So if we’re all ordering off the same menu already, albeit with multiple logos, why is one menu with one logo better? What does the new menu have that we don’t already have? And what can one menu provide that 90 can’t?
Let’s go back to graft. Our county executive mentioned earlier is on display for exactly what people should be most concerned with in this deal- contracts. Contracts are big business and the reality BT is not dealing with is that contracts, just like tax credits, can be bought and sold. Since the 1950s, the St. Louis region has created dozens of private organizations to manage public services.
Transportation: Metro (once called bi-state), Great Rivers Greenway
Municipal: Metropolitan Sewer District, Zoned trash contracts, private water supply, Regional Health Commission
Economic Development: The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership (EDP) is a regional eco devo service operating an umbrella organization of about a dozen entities empowered to manage loans, grants, land reclamation, oversees regional industry sector development. It operates under a formal agreement between agencies in the city and county through the brand of the EDP, which is dissolvable.
Entertainment: St. Louis Zoo, Botanical Garden,
These entities and more operate through agreements with the city and county. For instance, St. Louis County has a sales tax for transportation. There are other taxes but this is just an example for simplicity sake. They can use that money to provide transportation in just about any capacity they want. But, through the structure of the organization of the board for Metro elected official have some control over operations.
Metro is the only real game in town for what we consider public transportation and considers that revenue stream as theirs. But cabs could also become public transportation as well as Uber and Lyft. This would certainly change the politics of the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission. It would change the nature of service delivery and change the market in many unknown ways. With modern technology, diversification may actually lead to more efficiency in the short run, but not meet all the needs in the long run.
Consolidation may meet regional needs in the long run. But, that is only if the person in charge values equity, efficiency, productivity and the perceived value of existing communities over political ties and power. The BT failure is that they are putting faith in government over the pride of communities. How can we have faith in government while our leaders are doing a perp walk?
For the past 60 years, St. Louis created private and quasi-public organizations run by nonprofits to provide infrastructure and services to the region. This increased complexity actually limits local communities from tapping into their tax base. It also hides things of value form the public, like contracts.
Major change like the one proposed should come from within an institution and branch out. Forced change not only faces questions of legitimacy, but also rips people’s sense of buy-in away. The English, in one way, rebuked change that seems like a beneficial idea all because of where it was coming from. The French embraced change because of who it came from and why.
If the state decides we are required to change people will eventually adapt to the change by attrition. That is those opposed to the change will do their best to vote with their feet or die trying. But I don’t see the change being of any consequence to the run of the mill resident. I see the change as an attempt to manage procurement and bigger contracts to fewer organizations. Whoever has control over the contract process will have control over the well-being of the region. Let’s hope they stay out of jail.