Pro-merger advocacy group Better Together, a day after pulling its plan to consolidate St. Louis and St. Louis County governments, worked on Tuesday to re-establish leadership and direction.
Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University and chairman of Better Together’s campaign, UniteSTL, said the campaign has been suspended, and he no longer has a formal role with the organization. Board members and insiders discussed leadership changes, but they made no decisions.
And municipal officials, fresh from months of blustering against the merger, expressed guarded optimism that they could work with Better Together going forward.
“I think this has to be a wakeup call that the status quo is not good,” said Marty Corcoran, the 35-year city manager of Maplewood. The region’s leaders need to build a reform plan with true public input, he said, and bring it to voters with a unified front.
Better Together leaders called Monday’s decision a restart, said they are open to changes to their proposal, and acknowledged that they need to work more closely with the region’s municipal officials and residents.
“There have been some unforced errors that have damaged the brand of Better Together,” said board member Will Ross, associate dean for diversity at Washington University School of Medicine. “Irrevocably? That I don’t know.”
He called for a “much more inclusive” process to govern the organization’s next effort.
Still, the gap between the sides was clear on Tuesday.
Wrighton said the effort needs to better educate the public on the shortcomings of the region, the fragmentation of governments and the need for reform.
“I think we need more dialogue about what is actually being proposed. I think there are misunderstandings,” Wrighton said. “Is this a defeat? By no means. We have more work ahead.”
Municipal officials, on the other hand, called for a reevaluation of the region’s ailments — they argued that fragmentation isn’t one of them — a rethinking of solutions to those problems, and a refocus on a public process people can support.
“If there’s one benefit, it’s that they’ve made people talk,” said Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, of Better Together. “We’ve never said everything is flowers and roses in St. Louis city and county.”
Kelly and other municipal officials said on Tuesday they would continue efforts toward a public examination of the region’s governmental structure. If the league can gather about 20,000 voter signatures, it would force St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page to appoint a special board, called a Board of Freeholders, authorized by the Missouri Constitution to reorganize governments.
Kelly said they have about 11,000 signatures in the county and 6,500 in the city, but they need several thousand more to cover disqualifications.
Still, leadership on both sides said Tuesday that they hope the conversation can move past the roadblocks that stalled Better Together and into the substance of change.
Better Together publicly announced its proposal in late January to merge the governments of St. Louis, St. Louis County and all 88 county municipalities into one “metropolitan city.”
But the plan was almost immediately attacked by residents and municipal officials who were publicly outraged by two main parts of the measure: the statewide vote on local government and the automatic appointment of then-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger as first mayor of the merged metro city.
When news broke in March that federal prosecutors were investigating Stenger, Better Together removed him from the proposal. Board members and insiders began urging the nonprofit’s leaders to consider major changes.
On Monday, the campaign committee — Wrighton, director Nancy Rice, and campaign consultant Michael Kelley — pulled the initiative from ballot consideration.
Wrighton said they are examining how to move forward. They are interested, perhaps, in “beefing up” the Board of Freeholders process so it could make broader regional changes, such as combining police departments and courts. “We’re open to any mechanism that will overcome the challenges of a fragmented government structure,” Wrighton said.
Reaction by area municipal leaders varied widely Tuesday.
Some, such as Wellston City Administrator Janice Trigg, said they were not willing to work with Better Together. Others told the Post-Dispatch that they were, but guardedly.
Crestwood Mayor Grant Mabie said he’d negotiate with Better Together as the U.S. does with the Russians. Still, he said, he’s willing to talk, “rather than leave them to their own secretive schemes and wait for some hair-brained Better Together Version 2.0 to roll out.”
Black Jack Mayor Norman McCourt, president of the Muni League, called for the reentry of St. Louis into St. Louis County.
County Executive Page said he’s willing to engage in conversation with anyone interested in making government better — but Better Together’s current proposal, he said, doesn’t meet that standard.
Mayor Krewson said she expects the nonprofit’s proposal to evolve.
“I am really hoping we can have a better, more effective government structure in this region, so we can make these big decisions with the region in mind,” she said. “We have so much going for us.”