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Board of Freeholders holds first meeting,

Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, center top, welcomes the new Board of Freeholders to the aldermanic chambers at St. Louis City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. The group met with only its St. Louis County- and state-appointed members; the city appointees have yet to be approved. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — For more than a month, St. Louisans have watched — some with exasperation, some with amusement — as aldermen and the mayor squabbled over the makeup of the city’s delegation to the new regional Board of Freeholders.

But while the impasse continues and names are proposed, floated, withdrawn and substituted, the fact remains that such city-county boards — set up under the Missouri Constitution — rarely get anything accomplished.

The freeholders process has been used only six times since the constitution was changed in 1924 to give the city and county a way to reunite or otherwise modify their relationship following their separation in 1876.

And only once has such a board successfully altered government here: in 1954, when city and county voters approved forming the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

Nevertheless, the new board — which may call itself the Board of Electors as the last panel did 30 years ago — is given wide-ranging, open-ended authority to craft a proposal in its yearlong lifespan assigned by the constitution.

“It could be anything,” St. Louis Alderman Annie Rice said. “It could be nothing.”

While the makeup of the nine-person St. Louis delegation is still being hashed out, the nine St. Louis County appointees and sole state appointee are set.

The panel could push for anything from outright consolidation of the city and county to a much more incremental change, such as the last board’s unsuccessful plan to put all of Forest Park under joint city-county ownership and funding.

To take effect, whatever the board proposes has to be approved by separate majorities of voters in the city and county.

That’s the major difference between the freeholders process and the now-discarded merger plan proposed earlier this year by the Better Together organization.

That plan — to merge the city, county and all county municipalities into one entity — would have been decided at a statewide election as a proposed constitutional amendment.

As an alternative to the Better Together proposal, municipal officials in the county led a petition effort as outlined in the constitution to trigger the creation of the freeholders board.

Mayor Lyda Krewson, who had been a strong supporter of Better Together, said, “I do understand that the folks who collected the signatures here don’t want anything to change” in the county. Still, she concedes “it is possible something good will come out of this.”

Krewson made her comment to reporters as she left the Nov. 12 opening meeting of the board, which was held without any city representation but had no substantive discussions. Further meetings aren’t expected until after the city members are approved by the Board of Aldermen.

Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, disputed Krewson’s assertion that the league is opposed to all change.

The league initiated the petition process, he insisted, “because we thought there needed to be a public forum” on city-county issues instead of letting the private Better Together organization set the terms of the debate.

“We’re hoping that something positive will come out of this process regardless of what it is,” said Kelly, a former Brentwood mayor. “Realistically it’s got to be something they build a consensus for (among voters). It has to be something the general public feels can be beneficial.”

Kelly has suggested that the new board consider allowing St. Louis to reenter St. Louis County as one of its municipalities. But he says the league itself hasn’t taken a position. “Once the process starts, we want to be a participant,” he said.

Board members and prospective members so far have said little about what the board might consider, other than to say they want to get input from the public.

Meanwhile, Krewson and County Executive Sam Page, who appointed the county members, haven’t made any proposals or listed subject areas for the board to consider. Nor has Gov. Mike Parson.

That concerns James Shrewsbury, a former St. Louis aldermanic president who now heads the regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, which oversees the domed stadium downtown.

“If anything’s going to happen with the board, the mayor, the governor and the county executive have to be on the same page and they have to work diligently toward that goal,” he said. “If they don’t, this is just a waste of time.”

Meanwhile, Terry Jones, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said the board will have to decide “whether to go big, I mean sweeping, or go small” in terms of its plan’s impact.

“I would define a sweeping change under the current climate as being city reentry,” Jones said.

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, doubts that the new board will produce anything significant that can get voter approval — in part because of the “bad feelings” left from the Better Together proposal.

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“There’s a whole cloud over this,” Warren said.

The last freeholder petition drive was in 1987, when then-County Executive Gene McNary initiated one to advance his goal of drastically reducing the number of county municipalities.

Amid die-hard opposition from municipal officials, the board spent a year hammering out a plan calling for the remapping of the county into 37 expanded or new municipalities, four fire districts and no unincorporated areas and various other features.

But an election slated for 1989 was never held. Opponents challenged the plan all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared invalid the state constitution’s requirement that only property owners could serve on freeholder boards.

Backers then got the state Supreme Court to order appointment of a second board, with no property ownership requirement. The court didn’t give it a name but said it should be made up of electors, a term that generally means registered voters. So the new board informally called itself the Board of Electors.

Because of that, Joe Blanner, a Jefferson County lawyer and Parson’s appointee to the current board, says the electors name should be used by the panel that is forming now.

The 1990-91 electors board’s Forest Park plan, which also would have increased business utility taxes to pay for a fund to help attract new businesses to the region, lost in both the city and the county.

Also failing at the polls were freeholder-generated proposals in 1926 for a city-county merger under city government, in 1955 for a metropolitan transit district, and in 1959 for a new metropolitan district to handle items such as police, sanitation, roads, transit and economic development.

For years, freeholder boards were limited to considering an outright city-county merger, city reentry, annexation by the city of part of the county and new metro districts for specified services.

But in 1966, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment adding a so-called fifth avenue — “any other plan for the partial or complete government of all or any part of the city and the county.”

However, it’s legally unclear if a freeholders/electors proposal can tinker with school districts, said Jordan Cherrick, the lead lawyer in the successful effort to get the state Supreme Court in 1990 to keep the process intact.

The state constitution addresses schools and education in an entirely different section than local government, he pointed out. Whether a freeholders plan could even address schools has never been ruled on by the courts, he said.

However, there is at least some historical precedent for dealing with schools. The 1926 city-county merger plan rejected by voters also would have put county schools under the city school system.

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