CHESTERFIELD • Local mayors and elected officials made official Thursday night their effort to stop any forced consolidation of municipal governments in St. Louis County by a statewide vote and to keep any decisions about the shape of government in local residents’ hands.
The voice vote came without dissent at a meeting of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis at Chesterfield City Hall.
“I’m elated, with our board and our membership,” said Norm McCourt, league president and mayor of Black Jack, after the meeting. “It sends a crystal clear message: Ignore us at your peril.”
The overwhelming vote favors creating a special board authorized by the Missouri Constitution to come up with any plan for a reorganization of the county and city of St. Louis. The board could decide on a plan to merge the county and the city of St. Louis without consolidating municipalities, or propose no changes at all.
The league will seek 20,000 voter signatures to force St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger to appoint the so-called Board of Freeholders.
The plan is an effort to keep the fate of the region with local voters. It’s an alternative to a plan — for which Stenger and Krewson have publicly expressed support — by a St. Louis nonprofit group to hold a statewide vote to merge the county and city. That plan would combine under one megacity the police departments, court systems, roadways and economic development arms of the city, county and all 88 county municipalities.
The nonprofit, Better Together, says the proposal would require a constitutional amendment to create the new form of government. The nonprofit plans to announce Monday a campaign to gather more than 160,000 signatures to put its proposal before voters statewide in November 2020.
The effort is largely funded by billionaire financier Rex Sinquefield. Area business leaders have said they favor a consolidated government.
But mayors and elected officials in St. Louis County have balked at Better Together’s plan. They say it maneuvers around local voters to give outsiders control over the shape of government in the St. Louis area.
“I can’t imagine being a member of St. Louis County and voting on matters” in other counties, Chuck Caverly, councilman in Maryland Heights and a league board member, said after the meeting.
Caverly introduced the resolution to vote on the league’s plan. It was immediately seconded and approved.
“Local government is the best government,” he said after the meeting. “Why is it the best government? Because it’s the closest to the people.”
The league’s plan provides for an “open, public, transparent” process, Pat Kelly, the league’s executive director and the former mayor of Brentwood, told members before the vote.
“We can all agree that there are some issues in our region, but we can also all agree, I think, that by working — I hate to use this word — together, we can collaborate and come up with some solutions,” Kelly said.
Board member and Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III followed the comment by suggesting the league use the word “collectively,” instead of “together.”
Kelly and McCourt also disputed Better Together’s claim that a statewide vote would be required to form a new consolidated government.
McCourt said the league requested the chance to participate in the studies Better Together did to draft their plan but was refused.
“This league was denied the opportunity to participate then, and it’s still denied the opportunity now,” he said.
McCourt also invited Sinquefield to meet with the board.
“It is past time for Mr. Sinquefield to come out of the shadows to discuss his plans and goals for the organizations he sponsors,” he said.
Eighty-one municipalities and both the city and county of St. Louis are voting members of the league. It was not clear exactly how many were present Thursday night.
If the league gathers enough signatures for its effort, Stenger and Krewson would have 10 days to name nine members each to the 19-members of the Board of Freeholders. Gov. Mike Parson would appoint the final board member.
Once appointed, the board would have to hold its first meeting within 30 days, Kelly said.
“This isn’t a process that anyone can ignore,” Kelly said.
The effort will need 3 percent of those who voted in each jurisdiction in the latest gubernatorial election, which would be 15,000 signatures in the county and 5,000 signatures in the city, Kelly said.
The board would then have a year to formulate any plan, which would then require approval from county and city voters, Kelly said.
It was unclear how exactly the effort to gather signatures would move forward, but board members say they plan to ask elected officials to coordinate unpaid volunteers and to take advantage of municipal elections in April to talk to voters.
Knowles said he expects the signature gathering to be easy.
McCourt said he will stand outside Black Jack City Hall to solicit signatures.
A Board of Freeholders last convened in 1987, but opponents sued, and the board’s plan never made it to voters.