Virvus Jones doesn’t mince words.
The longtime city politico, a former comptroller for the city of St. Louis, is not a fan of the Better Together movement that aims to combine the city and St. Louis County into a new metro government.
“This movement could not have been more elitist,” Jones wrote on Twitter last weekend.
Jones isn’t necessarily wrong.
From its beginning, Better Together has been supported and nudged along by wealthy members of the St. Louis business community, many of whom had urged city-county unity long before the nonprofit group was founded.
The Rev. Starsky Wilson has a different criticism.
He doesn’t believe Better Together is elitist enough.
Wilson, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Deaconess Foundation, is the former co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission, created after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The group produced the Forward Through Ferguson report, an outline of plans to help St. Louis get over decades of inequity between its white and black residents.
When Wilson heard that Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton was named to lead the Better Together campaign, he was disappointed, not so much as a criticism of Wrighton, who will leave his position as head of the university this summer, but because of who hasn’t put their names and faces on the line: the most powerful CEOs in the city and the county.
“It is ... ripped straight from the Civic Progress playbook of choosing one of its members who is either outgoing in leadership or marginal to their identity (his leadership is not of a corporate entity) to take on these more risky or unpopular tasks,” Wilson wrote on Facebook.
“It allows them to look engaged, monitor activity for diversion from their aims and distance themselves from the ultimate outcome if it’s not successful. If it is successful, Wrighton will be the 2020 Citizen of the Year.”
I happen to think Wrighton is a solid choice, and I wrote the piece that led to Wilson’s Facebook post, but I understand his point.
A couple of years ago, I lamented that the culture of the top St. Louis business leaders, whose influential organization is called Civic Progress, is more often than not to keep themselves behind the scenes, quietly, beneath the fray. At the urging of some other business leaders, I wrote a column about that perception.
“What they’re telling me is that compared with similar organizations in big cities where these business leaders also work, Civic Progress is too quiet,” I wrote.
On Monday, Wilson and I were in the crowd as Wrighton and other Better Together task force members and organizers unveiled their plan to get an initiative on the statewide ballot in November 2020 and create a new, more efficient government model for the region.
Speaker after speaker referenced Wilson’s important work on the Ferguson Commission, as well as the invaluable work of Washington University researcher Jason Purnell, whose For the Sake of All report outlined horrendous disparities in health outcomes among black and whites in St. Louis.
The Better Together folks believe a new, more unified government can help achieve some of the better outcomes in terms of racial equity sought by both reports.
Dr. Will Ross, a member of the task force, made the most passionate case.
“I speak to you as a black man living in St. Louis,” Ross said. “This is deeply personal to me.”
A new form of government, he said, could better address health disparities, policing issues, neighborhood revitalization, violence and toxic stress. A new government that isn’t always fighting with itself could better carry out the action items called for in the Ferguson Commission.
“They could be amplified in a way that has never happened before,” Ross said.
Wilson wasn’t convinced.
“I appreciate the numerous references to the commission’s work,” he told me after the Better Together rollout. “But you don’t get to the outcomes without the process.”
For Wilson, that process included public meetings disrupted by protesters; cops and young black children talking intently about their differences; CEOs and mayors and activists sitting at the same table. That untamed process led in many directions the commission didn’t know it would take them. But it also led to a report that four years after its release is now being cited by leaders seeking a new form of government for St. Louis as a reason to support the plan.
For now, the man who helped write that report is leaning toward no.
Wilson wants to see the CEOs who lead St. Louis behind the scenes roll up their sleeves, get in the streets and talk to the people.