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Better Together reveals plan to merge city, county

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger talks with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson at the beginning of a presentation by Better Together Jan. 28.

Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — The organizers of a botched bid to merge the city of St. Louis with the county jettisoned their squadron of well-connected lobbyists Friday.

According to records filed with state ethics regulators, the Missouri Council for a Better Economy — known as “Better Together” — terminated its relationship with four lobbyists as the group restructures after the consolidation effort unraveled this spring.

In May, Better Together announced it was pulling its beleaguered consolidation proposal from ballot consideration and suspending its campaign arm, UniteSTL.

That was just five months after the organization announced its proposal to merge the governments of St. Louis, St. Louis County and all 88 county municipalities into one “metropolitan city.”

With that launch, the organization hired a team of lobbyists, including former Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, Dave Berry, former Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry lobbyist Tracy King, and Deanna Hemphill.

Their task was to work with state and local governments to help shepherd the consolidation process through its legislative and bureaucratic steps.

But, the proposal was bashed by residents and municipal officials who were 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.

Organizers are still examining how to move forward.

Along with ending its relationship with the lobbyists, Better Together also tapped a new chief.

After former Executive Director Nancy Rice resigned earlier this year, the organization’s board picked Dave Leipholtz, former director of community-based studies, as the new executive director.

Leipholtz said the lobbyists were let go because there currently is little activity surrounding the effort. Lawmakers are not in session and there is no legislation currently pending.

“We simply don’t have any legislation we are planning to monitor at this time,” Leipholtz said.

Dempsey, a Republican who served as the leader of the state Senate from 2015 to 2017, still has close ties to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who supported the merger bid. Records show Dempsey continues representing the city as a lobbyist.

Hemphill also remains closely linked to the unification bid. She is registered to lobby on behalf of retired financier Rex Sinquefield, who was helping to bankroll Better Together.

Berry also remains employed by the lobbying company that Sinquefield helped found.

The fundraising arm of the group, United STL, reported having $98,000 in its campaign fund at the end of June.

Records show the campaign fund doled out more than $240,000 between April and July on legal fees, consultants and other campaign-related expenses.

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