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Better Together reveals plan to merge city, county

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson attend a presentation by Better Together where the plan to merge the city and county was revealed at the Cheshire hotel on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — When Mayor Lyda Krewson claimed earlier this month that she had asked St. Louis County to provide 42 police officers to help patrol the city, county officials said they had no idea what she was talking about.

Late Thursday, the city released a document to comply with a public-record request from the Post-Dispatch that explained the discrepancy. It also put a light on a quiet effort by St. Louis business leaders earlier this year to combine the area’s two largest police departments and polish the region’s reputation by reporting crime statistics in a way that would help St. Louis evade “most dangerous city” lists.

It was a March 21 letter from Krewson to Tom Irwin, a Centene Corp. executive with a deep background in business and state and local government, proposing that St. Louis act with urgency to enter a contract with the county for 42 police officers and double that deployment within 18 months.

But Krewson inexplicably did not send the letter to anyone in St. Louis County, exposing a chasm between city and county interests as the metropolitan Board of Freeholders gets underway to study a possible merger.

“Direct communication is usually the most effective,” Winston Calvert, chief of staff to County Executive Sam Page, said in an email.

Krewson said in an interview on Friday that she sent the informally written, single-page letter only to Irwin, vice president for regional development and political affairs for the health care corporation which has its headquarters in Clayton. Irwin previously spent 12 years as executive director of Civic Progress, a group of CEOs from St. Louis’ largest companies, retiring from that post in 2018.

Three days before Krewson sent her letter, Irwin had convened a meeting that included a group of St. Louis-area CEOs concerned about the area’s crime rate and its harm to the region’s reputation. Irwin said the effort was not initiated by Civic Progress. Guests included Krewson, St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, then-County Executive Steve Stenger and County Police Chief Jon Belmar. In interviews on Friday, neither Krewson nor Irwin would disclose the site of the meeting nor the business leaders who attended.

Krewson said the discussion centered on how the city and county could cooperate with policing and jointly report crime statistics.

Among several ideas the group explored during a one-hour meeting was an outright merger of the two departments — something Belmar had proposed weeks earlier as an alternative to a merger plan being pushed by the nonprofit advocacy group Better Together. The Better Together plan would have included the smaller police departments across the county’s 88 municipalities.

In an interview on Friday, Irwin said the business leaders acknowledged there would be obstacles to combining the two departments, including a wage gap and differences in pension systems, and the CEOs wanted to fund the efforts to study how to overcome those. “Truthfully, the issue is larger than 42 officers,” he said. “What the group was looking for is what is a long term solution? How do you get enough folks deployed in the city?”

“Whatever the differences are,” he said, “it’s time to put them aside and figure out how to get together and solve this problem.”

Both Krewson and Irwin said the discussion did not result in an agreement to pursue a specific proposal. Any momentum from the meeting quickly got swept into the undertow between two waves that crashed into the St. Louis area this year — Better Together’s spectacular rise and fall and the federal corruption probe that sent Stenger to prison.

Krewson’s letter was dated the same day a federal grand jury served a subpoena to St. Louis County seeking a wide range of records, signaling that Stenger was in trouble.

Krewson previously told the Post-Dispatch she had raised the idea of the county loaning 42 officers during the meeting — an assertion that Belmar denied. But on Friday she clarified that she did not raise the idea at the meeting, but for the first time in her letter to Irwin.

Irwin confirmed he received Krewson’s letter. “As far as I know, it was only addressed to me. It was pretty informal, just on a regular white sheet of paper. I took the letter and put it in my file.”

He said he did not follow up to see how the plan was moving forward. “It’s really not my role,” he said. “Any communication between the city and county should take place between the two elected representatives.”

Asked why she did not send the letter to officials in St. Louis County, Krewson said, “There was no expectation that it wouldn’t be shared. I can’t speak to exactly who he shared it with. My thought was it was shared with the others at the meeting.”

She sent the letter to Irwin “because Tom Irwin called the meeting,” she said. “He was the lead on the meeting.”

Krewson’s letter thanked Irwin for his work coordinating the effort to “examine the question regarding how the St. Louis City and St. Louis County police departments can combine to reduce violent crime.”

She said that since the meeting, she had been “seriously considering the group’s ideas. I am confident that we all have the same objectives — to reduce the actual incidence of crime — and to drop in the rankings by reporting under (a single uniform crime report). Both objectives are important.”

“If Chief Belmar and the County Executive are agreeable,” she wrote, she would instruct Edwards and Police Chief John Hayden to implement the contract and said she hoped the county officers would be in place no later than May 1.

“We will need your group’s help to make this happen ASAP,” she wrote. “At the same time, we should continue the research and develop a plan to combine our departments.”

But the effort never moved forward, and in September she received a letter from Stenger’s successor, offering 18 police officers to patrol MetroLink in the city — an offer that came with a dose of criticism for not having asked for help.

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