For a long time, much of Greater St. Louis has believed the conventional wisdom that its 115 governments result from careful choices made by voters and calculated decisions executed by well-intentioned civil servants.
This myth of local control often results in the isolation of residents in their own neighborhood leading to the perception that others simply cannot “get it together.” From this myopic viewpoint, crime, social unrest, dwindling populations, and a struggling economy are the outcome of others’ poor decisions.
However, reality tells a different story...
Our region has more elected officials (684) than the United States Congress (535). Out of those 684 elected officials, 29 mayors were voted into office with 100 votes or fewer. Only 9.41% of the voting-age population cast a ballot in the most recent municipal elections. In Country Life Acres (population of 74), only 2 votes were cast in the last election.
The idea that government in St. Louis is “by, for, and of the people” is a tragic misperception. In the 2014 municipal elections, Glendale tallied only 204 votes (4.56% turnout). Now consider that their mayor serves as the city attorney for Grantwood Village and Uplands Park. The fact that 14 lawyers sit as attorneys for more than half of the local governments and serve as elected officials for those governments compounds the lack of representation in St. Louis. Municipalities subsequently mutate into a series of intertwined oligarchic fiefdoms. How can this structure be called ‘local’ or ‘independent’ when the same small set of people operates them?
Some wish to dispute this frightening reality because it shakes their faith in local government. Others contest the truth because the status quo benefits their law firm or personal interests. It pays to pump out 52,631 pages of ordinances and then police them for profit. For perspective, the IRS Tax Code stretches 9,000 pages.
Why don’t people just become more engaged? Well, 18 polling places rest within police headquarters. Out of the region’s 450,000 outstanding warrants nearly 1/3 of them originate from those same polling places. The majority of these warrants do not exist for serious crimes but rather for citizens who refuse to pay fines issued for walking on the left side of a crosswalk or having mismatched curtains. Hence, citizens cannot walk into their polling place and vote out the officials that fined them for barbecuing in the front yard without fear of immediate arrest.
If this breakdown in representational democracy does not unsettle you, perhaps the economic numbers will. The current structure of St. Louis spends $213.16 per capita on general administration. That is $281,078,709 (or over a quarter of a billion dollars) per year, when aggregated. When put together, the top officials in St. Louis’s local governments rake in $5,782,093 in total salaries. Already the costs, successes, and failures of each municipality affect the entire region. Overall the St. Louis region spends $2.38 billion dollars to fund 115 governing bodies.
What do we receive in return? Unrepresentative democracy, petty infighting, conflicts of interests, racial inequity, policing for profit, distorted courts, uncoordinated fire protection, and an underperforming regional economy.
St. Louis will never realize its full potential unless we embrace the reality that the people of this region have little control over what their local governments do. Anything is better than the myth of local control. Anything is better than this current structure.