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DES PERES • Current and former St. Louis County officials showed up in force Wednesday at the third Better Together town hall meeting to voice opposition to the group’s plan to consolidate the governments of St. Louis, St. Louis County and all 88 county municipalities.

Local officials, including St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch, municipal officials from St. Ann and Olivette, and former Municipal League of Metropolitan St. Louis executive director Tim Fischesser, found a receptive audience in the crowd of about 150 attendees at Des Peres Lodge.

A handful of people with signs that said “Stop the Forced Merger” greeted attendees outside the lodge.

The vocal crowd frequently heckled Marius Johnson-Malone, deputy director of community-based studies at Better Together, as he responded to their statements and questions.

The questions echoed the two previous town hall meetings: Why require a statewide vote, why not include school districts in the plan, and why make County Executive Steve Stenger the first metro mayor if the plan is adopted?

Johnson-Malone said the group did not set out to study school districts because they had a different type of structure from that of local governments. He said the plan would designate a metro city mayor until elections in 2022 because the alternative would require simultaneous elections for both the merger plan and any officials who would head the new form of government.

Fitch, a former county police chief who represents parts of Manchester, Chesterfield, Kirkwood, Sunset Hills and Fenton, accused Better Together of cherry-picking data.

Fitch said the Better Together presentation relied on old data on how many police departments remained unaccredited, failing to reflect big improvements since 2015.

“Doesn’t that give you an idea of where we’re going with this?” Fitch said to the crowd.

Terri Franks, of north St. Louis County, was the only person to speak publicly in support of the merger.

“A lot of people in this room do not bear the brunt of an accredited or an unaccredited police department,” said Franks, who is black, in a direct address to the mostly white audience. “The people who do, who don’t have a voice, are not here, and they can’t be here for many reasons.”

Franks said she was speaking for people in neighborhoods without resources.

“With this group (Better Together) I don’t know, but all I do know is that St. Louis is always in the top one through 10 in crime (and) murders. But everything is still OK with these governments? These fragmented cities are fine? No, they’re not.”

Some attendees yelled responses to Franks as she spoke, arguing that the crime “is in the city.” But others nodded and applauded her in support.

“Everyone is asking ‘What’s in it for me?’” said David Burlis, of Affton, after the town hall ended. Burlis owns an employment services firm that helps people find jobs. He said the county’s fractured governments stifle economic growth. “But the community needs more unity in order to regain it’s stature.”

Better Together’s initiative, if approved by Missouri voters in November 2020, would combine the police departments, court systems, roadways, regional planning and zoning, and economic development arms of the city, county and county’s municipalities. One mayor would preside over the new city, with 33 council members. The county’s 88 municipalities would become “municipal districts” that could deliver a limited array of services, including parks and recreation and trash collection.

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.