JEFFERSON CITY -- A long-standing proposal by St. Louis officials to regain local control of its police department is getting a push from an unexpected source.
Rex Sinquefield, the same retired investor-turned-political activist who is behind the plan to get rid of the city's earnings tax, is in favor of the city taking control of its police department back from the state-appointed board that has overseen it since the Civil War.
With the support of Sinquefield, and House Speaker Steve Tilley, the bill that failed last year and has failed in several legislative sessions, moved quickly through a House committee today, passing 7-2. Tilley observed much of the hearing personally.
House sponsor Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said the "antiquated" system needs to change to return accountability of the police department "to the people." Nasheed, one of three Democrats to chair committees in the Republican controlled House, called for the vote on her bill after hearing testimony on it today for about an hour and a half.
Besides Sinquefield, whose lobbyist Travis Brown testified in favor, other supporters included the ACLU and Mayor Francis Slay, whose chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, testified.
"The people of St. Louis are smart enough to make their own decisions," said Rainford, in reading from a letter from Slay.
Rainford and Nasheed pointed to a vote by city residents in November on Proposition L that showed 69 percent of them favored a return to local control.
Rainford said that while Slay and current police chief Dan Isom have a good relationship, past relationships between the chief -- who answers to the board appointed by the governor -- and mayors have been "dysfunctional," and "toxic."
The bill is opposed by police officers, who testified that they were concerned that city control would change their department from a professional one to one that is ruled by politics.
"The police department operates much more efficiently without city intervention," said Joe Steiger, vice president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
St. Louis County Republican Rep. Gary Fuhr was the primary voice opposed to the local control measure during the hearing. Fuhr said he shared concerns by the police department that the return to local control might jeopardize the police officers' pension.
Nasheed said she intends for her bill to leave the pension in state control, and Rainford said the mayor supported that concept. Police officers, however, testified that the bill as written needed more controls to assure them the city couldn't raid the pension funds.
Sinquefield, who is one of the most significant campaign donors in the state, offered his support for the bill at the initial request of Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen, said Brown, his lobbyist.