ST. LOUIS — A key member of the city-county merger initiative has quit its board, citing “major reservations” about the future of the organization and calling for the resignation of three top officials.
Better Together Vice Chairman Will Ross, associate dean for diversity at Washington University School of Medicine, said he worries that the nonprofit is planning to take its existing proposal and “repurpose it,” without community input.
“I don’t have the confidence that the same people at the table can do this and be trusted,” Ross said. “At this point, when we’ve had such an abysmal — and I use that word correctly — such an abysmal response from the public, I think it’s time for a complete restructuring.”
Ross’ comments come before a Better Together board meeting scheduled for Thursday. Other trustees did not on Tuesday echo his concerns. They did, however, say that they expect to contemplate the organization’s future at the meeting.
“I’m sure there will be a great deal of discussion,” said trustee Jeff Aboussie, a former union official and current lobbyist. “I think this is a very, very delicate and important decision that all of us have to make, in this whole region.”
Better Together announced two weeks ago that it was again pulling its beleaguered consolidation proposal from ballot consideration and suspending its campaign arm, UniteSTL. Since then, Ross — one of five task force members who helped write the organization’s report and recommendations — said he has tried to engage in the reboot but hasn’t been contacted by Better Together director Nancy Rice.
On Friday, he sent Rice an ultimatum. He called for the dissolution of Better Together or, in the absence of such a decision, the removal of Rice, board Chairman Joe Adorjan and communications chief Ed Rhode.
“At this point, I don’t know whether Better Together is a viable entity, or whether it even should be,” Ross wrote in his email to Rice. “I understand the move to shutter Unite STL, but the public, the Better Together board, and the Task Force deserve more information about the next steps. This silence only validates the suspicion that decisions about Better Together are made by an insular, self-serving group.”
Ross said he would support the appointment of Better Together’s second-in-command, Dave Leipholtz, as new director, calling him knowledgeable, “incredibly bright” and “less dismissive than Nancy has been.”
Rice and Adorjan did not return phone calls seeking comment. Rhode declined to discuss Ross’ resignation.
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.”
The plan was almost immediately attacked by residents and municipal officials who were publicly outraged by two main parts of the measure: a proposal to put the initiative to a statewide vote, 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 May 6, the UniteSTL campaign committee — which includes Rice and Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton — pulled the initiative from ballot consideration.
Wrighton said then that they were examining how to move forward. He called for a more inclusive process and said leaders were open to changes to the proposal. But he also suggested that the organization’s problem was largely communication, not the substance of the initiative.
Multiple Better Together board members said Tuesday that they had no misgivings on the organization’s direction.
Trustee Mike Hejna, president and CEO of Gundaker Commercial Group in St. Louis, said he does not blame Better Together leadership for the organization’s struggles. He blames Stenger, and bad timing — and is still committed to the mission.
“St. Louis has not had growth in 30 years,” said Hejna, who noted he was not speaking for Gundaker. “Part of the problem is our dysfunction in our municipal delivery system. Better Together brought that problem to the surface and offered a pretty dramatic solution.”
Solving the problem will require “the entire village,” Hejna said, and Better Together still may play a role.
“I don’t think we need to stop trying,” he said.
Ross, too, emphasized that he still believed in Better Together’s goals — but no longer its methods.
“I want to acknowledge the great work of the task force,” he said. “A lot of that information is valid, and I hope it’s not dismissed. But in order to really accept that validity, Better Together has to humble itself and repurpose itself.”
“Absent any of that action,” he concluded, “I don’t think anyone should trust Better Together going forward.”