St. Louis likes its government close to home. The 90 municipalities in St. Louis County average fewer than 10,000 residents each, and the region is smothered with political jurisdictions. In 1950, each member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen represented on average more than 30,000 residents. Today that number stands at approximately 12,000.
As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Phyllis Young, alderwoman for St. Louis’ downtown, Soulard and Lafayette Square neighborhoods, is set to introduce a bill at Friday’s board meeting that would cut the number of city wards to 12 from 28.
While overrepresentation itself may be inefficient and necessary to address, alone it is just one small reason why the new effort to shrink the size of the city’s Board of Aldermen is so important. Wards of only 12,000, residents often struggle to find competent and energetic candidates for office. The current part-time status and modest salary preclude many from considering a run in the first place.
The fragmented system has meant that alderpersons are answerable to only a very small handful of city residents, as they are often elected with only several hundred votes. It’s not unheard of for an alderperson to be elected with fewer than 400 votes. In effect, the city operates as if its 28 municipalities were akin to those in St. Louis County.
The wards of North St. Louis, in particular, have not been well served by their elected representatives. The most that can be said is that the best aldermen of a largely shrinking part of the city have competently managed decline — and that’s clearly a stretch for many. Aldermen are rewarded for a shrinking population with an expanded ward as proportional representation is sought.
A dozen wards each lost more than 10 percent of their residents between 2000 and 2010, and yet their alderpersons now control an even larger area of the City of St. Louis.
The pitfalls of having so many wards go on and on: Historic preservation on one side of the street is absent on the other; aldermen routine invoke home rule — the idea that only constituents should have a say in ward decisions, whether closing streets, demolishing buildings or approving a development; community development block grants to the city are divided 28 ways and handed out without regard to city priorities.
Simply reducing the number of aldermen will not create a better city. But thinking like a city, having elected officials responsible for the city (or at the very least must larger portions of it) is undeniably positive. Naysayers must be required to explain how the status quo best serves ward residents and the city as a whole.
Currently, half of the 28 aldermen are up for election every other year. Following a decade of the city insisting it was growing once again, we learned that another 29,000 residents fled. It’s well beyond time to hit the panic button. The aldermanic system in place since 1914 (with aldermen elected at-large until 1943) does not serve the city well today.
Young’s bill already has 10 co-sponsors at the time of introduction, though nearly all represent south St. Louis wards.
The bill would first need to be passed by the Board of Aldermen itself. It would then require approval by 60 percent of voters, as it would amend the city charter. If approved, the measure would use the 2020 Census to configure the 12 Wards and would take effect in 2022. In 1957, voters rejected a reduction to 15 Aldermen. Initiatives in 1981 and 2004 were similarly defeated.
Following the Census bombshell, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay stated that it’s time for the city to rethink everything it does. It’s encouraging that Young believes that this is just the beginning, as she told the Post-Dispatch that a reduction in the number of alderpersons could set the stage for reducing the number of elected offices and more. Let’s hope the bill is a successful opening salvo in doing just that.