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St. Louis skyline after the storm

The St. Louis skyline glows against a backdrop of dark storm clouds as the sun sets on Thursday, June 28, 2018. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — Two separate efforts that could reshape St. Louis-area government are taking major steps forward this week.

On Monday, the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis turned in the final signatures needed — about 5,000 in the city and 15,000 in the county — to begin a process that could lead to a proposal to merge the city and county.

Those signatures are expected to be certified by Friday. Then, Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page will have 10 days to name nine members each to a 19-member Board of Freeholders; Gov. Mike Parson would appoint the final board member.

Unrelated to the freeholder effort — but simultaneous — the St. Louis County Charter Commission has scheduled a series of four public hearings this month to give residents the chance to evaluate several proposed changes to how county government works.

County residents voted in November to create the commission to review the constitution-like document that governs the county. After a tumultuous year that saw the St. Louis County Council place several charter amendments on the ballot to curb the power of then-County Executive Steve Stenger, the vote appeared to reflect a popular belief that the charter needed a thorough review.

After a slow start this year, the 14-member commission has met weekly since March.

Unlike the freeholder effort, the county’s charter commission would not immediately have any bearing on city residents. But the city could have a stake in any effort to change the county charter, if the city reentered the county.

The first charter commission hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the county council chambers in Clayton.

Here is what you need to know about each effort.

Freeholders

The freeholder effort rose from the ashes of a failed attempt by the nonprofit advocacy group Better Together to put the merger question to a statewide vote. The plan would have merged the governments of St. Louis city and county and all 88 county municipalities. And it would have installed Stenger as the first “metro mayor.”

Public officials across the St. Louis area railed against any plan that took the decision out of the hands of city and county voters. When news broke in March that federal prosecutors were investigating Stenger, Better Together yanked him from the proposal. Better Together pulled their beleaguered consolidation proposal from ballot consideration in May.

But the municipal league pushed forward with its freeholder effort, which culminates this week. Krewson and Page are expected to appoint their freeholder selections immediately. Each can only appoint five members of the same political party.

The board would then have a year to formulate any plan, which would then require approval from county and city voters.

Pat Kelly, executive director of the municipal league, said he hoped that incorporating the city of St. Louis into St. Louis County — reversing the so-called Great Divorce of 1876 — would be a top priority.

Charter commission

The St. Louis County Charter Commission is considering several changes to the county’s form of government. And it wants to hear from residents on those changes, starting this week.

The most significant would be to place a hired professional at the helm who reports to the council, similar to a publicly-traded corporation. Under this proposal, the county executive would still be the face of the county, but the manager would take over all county departments and run the day-to-day operations.

Many of the county’s largest municipalities are run this way, and a group of city officials from across the county are pushing it as a way to prevent Stenger-style corruption from happening again.

The charter commission is also studying whether the county should have nonpartisan elections, have an elected county auditor, have an appointed county assessor, and enforce minimum standards for municipal police departments.

The question of whether to impanel a charter commission is automatically on the ballot every decade in years ending in eight. Voters approved the creation of the charter commission in November.

Under the charter, the commission has until Dec. 31 to come up with changes to the charter. If at least nine members agree on revisions, those would go to county voters in 2020 — before any freeholder results.

Charter commission members have kept an eye on the freeholder process, but are operating independently of it .

“I think there is a high likelihood that the Board of Freeholders will want to keep their scope narrow and might be more inclined to adopt the county charter,” said Colleen Wasinger, a charter commission member and former county council member, “which makes the commission’s work that much more important for the future governance of our region.”

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