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Messenger: Next movie blockbuster coming to St. Louis? Return of the Freeholders!

Messenger: Next movie blockbuster coming to St. Louis? Return of the Freeholders!

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Newly sworn-in St. Louis County Executive Sam Page

Newly sworn-in St. Louis County Executive Sam Page takes down decorations from former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's office as he settles into his new space on Friday, May 3, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes,

With the possible exception of “The Godfather” franchise, movie sequels rarely match or surpass the original.

When it comes to the city-county merger drama dominating discussion in St. Louis over the past year or so, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page hopes to flip that script.

Call it “Better Together: The Board of Freeholders Returns.”

Or maybe, “Better Together: This Time the Public Matters.”

Better yet, don’t mention Better Together at all.

The sour taste of the bungled rollout of a process that ignored critics, bypassed voters and suffered from the same old top-down patriarchy that has held St. Louis back for decades still lingers.

“I don’t think it’s right to force change on local voters if the local voters don’t approve of it,” Page says, referencing the fact that among Better Together’s fatal flaws was its reliance on a statewide vote. “If they don’t vote on it they’re not going to own it.”

Soon, Page and his counterpart, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, are going to find out whether St. Louis taxpayers have a taste for any kind of regionalism.

The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis is preparing to submit petitions to the election boards of the city and county that, if there are enough signatures, would spur a year-long, very public Board of Freeholders process.

Pat Kelly, executive director of the municipal league, expects to submit the signatures sometime in early September. Once the petitions are certified, Krewson and Page to appoint nine freeholders each to the board. Gov. Mike Parson has the final appointment.

That board then meets in public for a year taking testimony and coming up with a plan, if any, to submit to the voters of the city and the county.

Kelly knows what he wants to see happen:

“The evaluation and discussion of St. Louis reentering St. Louis County should be a top priority,” he says.

Page is more circumspect, saying he wants the board to come into the issue with open minds, with two key charges: Don’t put something on the ballot that can’t be supported by voters, and make sure that any board proposal seriously addresses racial equity.

“We have an equity problem,” Page says. “We have very valuable human capital that isn’t entering the workforce.”

Indeed, the black unemployment rate in St. Louis historically runs about three times as high as the rate for white workers. And while Better Together talked a good game about racial equity, it had almost no support in the black community, in part because it adopted such a top-down approach and didn’t include many black leaders at the table when decisions were being made.

It’s imperative, Page says, that the Board of Freeholders learn from this mistake.

Even though some municipalities are doing fine in a vacuum, Page believes it is time for the region to move toward some sort of consolidation that improves economic opportunity for the entire St. Louis area. He has spent much of his first 100 days speaking to municipal leaders to prepare for the difficult conversation that must come next.

“I think most community leaders simultaneously recognize that we need to do something different, that there are pockets of failure, and loss of opportunity for those residents hurts the entire region,” Page says.

He finds himself in a unique role.

Krewson was an early endorser of the Better Together process. (Mea culpa: So was I). And she held out until the bitter end.

Now Page replaces the man — convicted felon Steve Stenger — who would have become the unelected mayor of the newly merged city, and finds himself thrust into the debate.

His timing isn’t great.

Stenger’s sentencing memo would make a great movie script, but it went to pains to tie his corruption to the Better Together movement. He heads to prison next month, around the time the next scene in the merger movie opens.

Will city re-entry, which gained favor among critics of Better Together, be a rallying cry, or just another diversion in a region that for more than a century has found it easier to segregate itself than unify?

“I think we’ve got a window here,” Page says. “We need to do better than we’re doing as a region.”

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