I am advocating for the continuation of the strong county executive form of government in St. Louis County. I implore the St. Louis County Charter Commission to take note of and to recognize the excellence in governance that has been a tradition for over two centuries in the city of Florissant, which has operated under a strong-mayor charter since 1963.
The city of Florissant, founded by the Spanish governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1786, is the oldest and, with 52,000 people, the largest city in St. Louis County. Florissant is older than the county, older than Missouri and even older than the U.S. Constitution.
A commandant system of military and civilian rule was in effect in Florissant until Missouri became a state, and Florissant is now benefiting from its fourth Missouri Charter. In fact, a Board of Freeholders met and drafted a strong-mayor governance charter, and the Florissant voters approved it in 1963. James J. Eagan was elected as our first strong mayor and had served for 37 years before he died in office
I was hired in 1976 as city engineer by Mayor Eagan. In 1979, I was elected to the Florissant City Council and served in that capacity for 32 years until I was elected as the third strong mayor from 2011 to 2019, following Robert G. Lowery, who served Florissant for 50 years as chief of police and mayor.
After 40 years in elective office, I made the decision to retire and asked Lowery’s son, Timothy J. Lowery, whom I promoted to chief of police in 2013, to run for mayor. He is now serving as our fourth strong mayor. All four of us were chosen by the people of Florissant to be their elected chief executive officer and political leader.
The combined leadership of this group has promoted progress and has been affirmed time and time again by our Florissant voters either for election or reelection and also for passage of almost every ballot initiative that the four of us have promoted.
I am a defender of our strong mayor charter, which leaves no ambiguity or doubt as to who is in charge and who is responsible. In America people want to choose their top leader, especially when that leader represents a county of a million people. The citizens of the county want to choose someone like Gene McNary, Buzz Westfall or Charlie Dooley, and very possibly Sam Page, to be their leader.
I respect the many professional city managers and administrators who are employed by other municipalities, most of which are considerably smaller and do not have the critical mass that Florissant and St. Louis County have, so a manager form of government makes sense in those cities. I also respect the mayors and councils of those smaller cities very much. On a larger scale, I believe the strong leader form is preferable.
The concept of balance of power between three branches of government forms the foundation of the nation’s democratic system. That balance can become blurred in the manager form of government, with the weight tipping inadvertently or on purpose to the legislative branch at the expense of or even at the elimination of an elected administrative branch.
Our region has seen a terrible example in recent years of the confusion caused by the uncertainty of whether the city manager or a weak mayor is responsible for actions or policies that have led to community problems. As bad as the news was regarding St. Louis County leadership last spring, there has never been any doubt about who was ultimately responsible.
In America’s democratic system, we know that elective governance can get messy but that it also empowers the people. Americans have earned the right with 243 years of defending this system to know where the buck stops, and there is absolutely no doubt where that is when the chief executive officer is elected.
Thomas P. Schneider was the mayor of Florissant from 2011 to 2019.