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Last updated 4:01AM ET
August 17, 2017
St. Louis Public Radio News
St. Louis Public Radio News
St. Louis City and County, still a divided front
The Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. (Mike Matney)
(St. Louis Public Radio) - The makeup of St. Louis politics involves a long list of players, all competing for space at a very crowded table.

Lately the flavor of regional discord involves tension between St. Louis and out-state voters on issues such as taxation and local control of the city police department.

Pile those questions on top of other "legacy issues" in St. Louis City and the 91 municipalities in St. Louis County.

According to some folks, the biggest problem with the St. Louis region is there are just too many towns in St. Louis County, many of them little more than glorified neighborhoods, with their own mayor, city council and police department.

At its best, this patchwork of teeny-tiny communities provides a measure of cover, from some of the big, systemic issues plaguing urban cities. At its worst, they're inefficient, marginalized and corrupt.

And of all the players, Charlack, Missouri is perhaps the poster child for municipal friction.

"We've had a reputation that precedes us, it's always been that way, as long as I've been here anyway," says Charlack Mayor Jim Beekman.

Last summer Charlack became the first Missouri town to put speed cameras on an interstate. Critics, including the St. Louis County Police Chief, claim the town is exploiting its 100 feet of frontage on Interstate 170 to generate revenue.

But Beekman's standard response is that enforcing laws is not exploitative.

"A law is a law and that's how I see it," Beekman says. "When people come through our town the reputation is there before they arrive and therefore they start to slow down and obey the laws. Our residents are extremely happy with that concept."

The issue of having so many municipalities clustered together is, to most people, just trivia. In practice it's all just "St. Louis."

Take, for example, a brief survey of students on the campus of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

Allington: Do you know what town UMSL is in? Student 1: Yes Student 2: University City, University Town or something? Student 1: We're not in Pine Lawn. Studnet 2: Its Normandy is it Normandy?

Unlike other students I spoke to, these guys, Mahdi Aziz and Monti Eid were at least one-third correct with Normandy.

And even teachers, like English Professor David Rota couldn't answer the question.

"Um, is it in Ferguson? No, its in Florissant, um, I guess I don't know," Rota said.

The complete answer is Bellerive, Bel-Nor and Normandy.

Critics often point to all these layers of local government stacked in, around and on top of each other as the biggest barrier to regional planning and growth.

Peter Salsich is a professor of law at St. Louis University. He was involved in a movement during the 1980's to cut the number of municipalities in the county by nearly 70 percent.

"For example, where should the next shopping center go?" Salsich said.

Salsich pointed to the recent case of the town of Bridgeton using tax incentives to lure a Walmart from its current location 2 miles away in St. Ann.

"It really drives home the fact that the city is, in some respects, starved by the governmental structure in which it exists," Salsich noted.

But others look at St. Louis and St. Louis County and say the situation is really no different than, say, suburban Chicago, and the whole question of too many municipalities is just a distraction. Mark Tranel is the Director of UMSL's Public Policy Research Center.

"Most of what controls the economic factors are related to the free-enterprise system and not the structure of local government," Tranel said.

Tranel said the real problems facing the region are things like workforce development that operate outside the sphere of local government.

"I think we don't address the critical issues, because we just sort of say well we've got 91 municipalities and that's an excuse for why something didn't happen," responds Tranel. "The St. Louis area has so outgrown the fact that there are 91 municipalities in St. Louis County."

But, if the region has outgrown its divided growth history, it hasn't managed to consolidate political power to press its agenda in Jefferson City.

A case in point is the issue of local control of the St. Louis Police Department.

"Quite frankly, the City of St. Louis has not earned the responsibility for local control," Republican State Senator Jim Lembke said.

Lembke's concern is that giving St. Louis control of its police department could open it up to mismanagement. This, despite the fact the department's last chief resigned in scandal, and despite the fact that a small portion of Lembke's district actually includes St. Louis City.

"The city government is dysfunctional; they're projecting a 45 million dollar shortfall this year," Lembke said. "I just think that there needs to be major reforms done to fixing our governance in the City of St. Louis before we turn over more responsibility to that government."

There is perhaps no single issue that raises the ire of city politicians more than the fact that out-state legislators have partial control over the city's police department.

"In all due respect to Senator Lembke, he doesn't live in the city of St. Louis, he's not paying the bills," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said.

"That's an absolute insult to the city of St. Louis, to suggest to that the people of St. Louis don't deserve their own police department," Slay said. "I think he ought to look at where the police department is in the municipality that he lives in."

Slay said that the city plans to press the issue of local control, armed with the results of Proposition L, a symbolic ballot measure showing that St. Louis residents overwhelmingly favor local control.

Still, changing the current system would require undoing a structure that's been in place since beginning of the Civil War. It would also require the cooperation of a significant number of Republicans, many of whom aren't keen on relinquishing any degree of power to Missouri's most liberal base.

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