For the past six years I have been privileged to serve as the mayor of Clayton. In accordance with the laws of our city, I termed out on Tuesday when the 23rd mayor of our city was sworn in.
While the past six years have been exciting and fruitful for Clayton, the proposal by Better Together has cast a long shadow over our entire region and leaves many unanswered questions about the future of a place each of us calls home. This is unfortunate because I and many other current and former mayors believe there are positive aspects to the Better Together proposal. But those positive aspects are overwhelmingly countered by consequences both intentional and unintentional.
I do not intend to prosecute the issues here. Better Together’s unfounded fiscal claims and lack of solutions to social, equity and educational issues are being exposed by professionals who do not have a dog in the fight. Their efforts to buy support have been well documented by the media. And as more details are exposed and understood, the list grows larger of those who may have originally favored their proposal but have shifted to neutral or have even joined the many who are opposed.
My intent is to begin the dialog of what happens after the November 2020 vote. I acknowledge that it is still very early, and the effect of a $25 million campaign to convince outstate Missourians that they, and only they, can “fix” the St. Louis region is unknown. However, if the early polls are an indication of the outcome in 2020, the Better Together proposal will fail. Then what?
While it is true that there is a contingent of elected officials and citizens who would be content with the status quo, it is also true that a larger contingent believes that common ground can be achieved, and that common-sense solutions can be applied, to make life better for all of us. One of the keys to a successful plan must include open and transparent dialogue that includes all aspects of our community, something that was missing from the Better Together approach. A life-altering proposal generated from a small group of well-meaning people with no input from stakeholders and imposed on over 1 million people by a vote of the entire state is contrary to American democracy.
There is no doubt that any solution will carry with it some pain. That is a common consequence when there is change, especially since we have been living with the same governmental structure since 1876. An equally critical key is the need for strong regional leadership to guide this process. While there are 88 municipal “leaders” in our region, none was elected to speak for anything but his or her own community.
Lacking a higher authority of leadership, a clear vision of the future cannot be formed. If nothing else, Better Together has forced us into a self-diagnosis and opened the conversation for what we can and should be. It is important that we take advantage of the moment.
It is incumbent upon the leaders of our region to have a Plan B prepared. Our region can and should be better than we are now, and the Better Together proposal has cast a light on important issues. It would be a tragic waste of momentum and focus to simply return to “status quo.” An appropriate alternative to Better Together would be to adopt the best elements of their proposal that push us to be a better place to live and do business, and build from there. As difficult as it may seem under the current political climate, leadership must emerge from the county. If not from the county executive, then from the County Council.
I call on our county officials to take the lead on pulling the destiny of the St. Louis region back from a statewide referendum to local self-determination, where it belongs, and to create a task force that includes involved citizens, important stakeholders, local government officials and independent professionals to work together to create a roadmap for the future.
Harold Sanger served as mayor of Clayton until his last day in office on Tuesday.