ST. LOUIS • Rank and file officers aren't as united behind City Hall control of the St. Louis police as proponents claim, the union president says.
In a letter addressed to Missouri voters, David Bonenberger, who includes his title as president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, urges a "no" vote on Proposition A. If passed, the measure would end about a century and a half of governance by a state board.
He alleges that thousands of voters who signed petitions to place the issue on the ballot were duped into believing that officers support it.
The words came as a surprise to union executive board members, who have endorsed the initiative. The panel is calling for an emergency meeting early next week to discuss the matter, said the association's business manager, Jeff Roorda.
Bonenberger alleges that officers have been forced to publicly support the effort by Mayor Francis Slay and the billionaire businessman who backed the proposal, Rex Sinquefield.
"They claim they have built in safeguards to protect officers from political influence if this passes," Bonenberger wrote. "Who are they kidding? The political officials will go to the upper ranks of the department, who will then force the lower ranks, under the guise of an order, to do what the city politicians want."
Virtually all U.S. municipal police departments, with Kansas City as a notable exception, operate as part of their city governments. The unusual state control in Missouri's two largest cities is an artifact of Civil War-era rivalries.
The union has long held reservations about political interference and security of their pension money. But it agreed to endorse local control, accepting assurances from Slay's office and Sinquefield's organization, A Safer Missouri.
Roorda said the union faces a dilemma: that if the initiative fails, another effort might be less accommodating.
"The membership is unified in that they don’t like the idea of local control, but the dissidence comes from the members who understand the predicament we’re in versus the members who don't. The whole goal for us right now is to reunify our message.
"I think (Bonenberger's letter) certainly changes some voters' minds, but the real concern is what would happen if this failed? We would have to go back to the drawing board with folks like the mayor and Mr. Sinquefield’s operation and take our chances of getting a worse deal."
Bonenberger won a hotly contested election for association president late last year, on a platform of opposing local control. He declined to comment for this story.
Nancy Rice, a spokeswoman for A Safer Missouri, said that the petition drive ended in April and there was no way now to try to investigate allegations Bonenberger made about petition workers. She said she believes Bonenberger was going back on his own word and making "very good officers who worked very hard" on reaching the agreement supporting the ballot initiative look, "very bad."
The mayor's office met with the union at least 30 times during the past two years, hammering out ways to protect their interests, said Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford.
"We want them to feel good about it and not like they're under siege," Rainford said.
Slay has vowed to honor the department's first-ever collective bargaining agreement as well as work with the police retirement system to make it sustainable, Rainford said.
Roorda noted that pensions and benefits will remain under state control -- an issue he said won over most in the organization's membership of about 1,200 -- and that the group is "very close" to an agreement between the mayor's office and retirement system on legislation to protect the pension system.
The changes will primarily affect new hires, said Stephen Olish, executive director of the system.