St. Louis Strong Founder on Consolidation Failure

Every St. Louisan wants to live in a thriving St. Louis. However, many will differ on what that St. Louis looks like. Full agreement isn’t possible. Differences of opinion will always exist.

Yet, all St. Louisans would like a voice and role in shaping their own future. St. Louis Strong envisioned a process where average residents partnered with policy experts, business owners and community leaders to design a shared future.

Each previous attempt to unite the region--and now the Better Together campaign--has merely informed and occasionally consulted residents. A closed task-force made recommendations that a political action committee immediately filed for the ballot. The public was not involved in the writing of the recommendations or policy language. 

While the Better Together Task-Force had seven public forums attended by 400 people while build its plan, in April it held nine community talks one week alone and eight at-capacity town-halls from March to April  after filing the ballot initiative.  Polling residents—by phone or in retrospective roundtables—is not listening to them. Lecturing communities is not including them.

The recommendations were based on multiple studies conducted by a nonprofit that is managed by a public affairs firm as a campaign and staffed by political campaign experts—not policy experts. Its own name ensured bias would be embedded into its studies and, at the very least, jeopardize the perception of its impartiality. The executive director of the nonprofit championing Metro St. Louis also serves as a principal at the public affairs firm managing the effort. The potential for a conflict of interest and incentive to omit or distort fact was unacceptably high.

On the surface, a metro-city of 33 municipal districts and a strong-mayor model is an acceptable and tempting way to reorganize and unite the region. However, a closed public policy process, the lack of third-party verified evidence-based outcomes, no disclosed authors, and broad discretion given to two executives to fill-in the details of a new government undermined this vision. Legitimate critiques by legal and municipal experts also call into question the accuracy of its predicted financial outcomes.

The key difference in process between the latest campaign to unite St. Louis and past attempts is the statewide vote component. While controversial, this approach would have been acceptable if residents had a full say in designing their future. Law is decided for St. Louisans by Jefferson City and Washington, D.C. by other Missourians and Americans. However, the difference is residents choose who represents their interests in the General Assembly and Congress. The public did not choose the authors of metro St. Louis and the public was not empowered in the development of the policy—nor were they given fair opportunity to amend the proposed policy. A statewide vote would perhaps have been acceptable if residents were co-authors of a consolidation plan.

Most importantly, outright corruption by elected officials, donors, developers and consultants sets off alarm bells concerning how the details of the new government would be determined. Better Together first intended to make the disgraced former County Executive, Steve Stenger, the Metro Mayor without an election. Their campaign arm Unite STL also hired the St. Louis County NAACP president, John Gakin, who then turned around and used his position to endorse the campaign. Gaskin had recently resigned from a job at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership that Stenger had helped him attain. 

Out-sized influence could have ensured elected officials of high integrity would hear voices disproportionately when considering how to construct and merge departments of government.

In full disclosure, St. Louis Strong attempted to partner with Better Together. We spoke at several of their forums and invited them to speak at one of our supporter meetings. Several times we offered our voice but were kept at arm's length. Initially, I often stopped by their office to share updates on my work but rarely received any updates on theirs. Before release of their recommendations I pointed our supporters their way.

In July 2017, they invited me to sit at their table at the St. Louis County NAACP dinner. I declined, sharing that I was discussing with my finance chairman dissolution after having received a job offer for a youth development organization. 

At the last moment, they offered to help us stay afloat on the condition that I write a handwritten apology to County Executive Steve Stenger. I had previously remarked the region had no leadership. I politely declined their offer and thanked all of them for the speaking platforms they had given us in the past. I also thanked Nancy Rice for the education and master’s class in politics that I had received from interacting with her. 

I learned my integrity, friends and family are worth more than anything.

St. Louis Strong also spoke with Civic Progress, the Regional Chamber, the Regional Business Council, several Better Together board members and many other civic business leaders. We shared that our effort was complementary in its attempt to build a plan with residents and the fact that consolidation had always pitted business interests against municipal officials and failed. We failed to persuade them that an authentic grassroots process would make the difference.

I adamantly support consolidation.

I desperately hoped Better Together’s plan would be something I could support. Yet, the will to change cannot mean the willing suspension of disbelief. Their tactics indicate along with the amendment language that politics in St. Louis would only slide into further corruption should they have succeeded.

A generational opportunity to write good policy with the entire community of St. Louis in sincere partnership has been devastatingly squandered.

But, I do hope folks doing good work will find ways to reduce fragmentation, bring the city and county together and address systemic racial inequity.

Jake Hollander is the Founder and former acting Executive Director of St. Louis Strong.