Wednesday, December 19, 2007

St. Louis County residents need a more representative government

From the Post Dispatch, Wednesday, December 19, 2007. Guest Commentary

St. Louis County residents need a more representative government
By Greg Bailey

The controversy over St. Louis County's plan to overhaul trash collection is only the latest symptom of citizen discontent with county government. For thousands of people in unincorporated St. Louis County, the county government is their only local government. For many more thousands living in municipalities, the impersonal county government institutions in Clayton can render their local governments powerless. It is not surprising that there is a grassroots effort, particularly among some people, to divide St. Louis County into smaller county jurisdictions and even some talk about recalling County Executive Charlie Dooley.

As well-intentioned as these somewhat longshot efforts might be, they miss the point. The problem is not the size of the county or any one person but the structure of the government. The goal should be to make government institutions directly accountable to the citizens they're supposed to serve.

St. Louis County is the largest and most powerful entity in Missouri. With more than a million people, it is larger than several states and roughly equal to the population of South Dakota and Vermont combined. The county government is responsible for many government services for all county residents, and the large minority of the population living in unincorporated area depend on the county for all their government services. St. Louis County has pockets of great wealth that rival Beverly Hills and pockets of poverty as dismal as any in the United States.

Since 1968, the government authority of this mass of people and land has been concentrated in one county executive, one prosecutor and seven part-time council members. All other offices that typically are accountable to voters "assessor, recorder of deeds, county clerk and others" are appointed, rather than elected, which puts the officeholders beyond the reach of the public.

It is time to question the wisdom of this structure. County residents vividly remember the so-called "drive-by" assessments of properties several years ago, which resulted in larger tax bills for many. Would any assessor who had to answer to the voters every four years even have attempted this? Making these officeholders directly elected would make them directly accountable.

Certainly St. Louis County does some things well. This includes the work of the county police department and the administration of the parks system - although both could be better funded. But other parts of the government do not measure up.

Of course, there are many fine, dedicated public servants working in county government who do their best for the people under difficult circumstances, but any government unit that does not have to answer to the public is liable to misuse or even abuse its authority. Most people, for example, have little direct contact with the circuit clerk's office in Clayton. They are fortunate. The poor service and hostile attitudes I encounter there are a direct result of a lack of accountability.

In its existing configuration, the office of the county executive operates more like a monarchy than a center of policy-making. Concentrating so much power in one person is a mistake. For proof, one only need look at the recent public meetings on the trash plan at which citizens were forbidden to speak or question the county officials presenting the plan it intends to impose.

The problems are compounded by the concentration of county legislative power in a seven-person council, an absurdly small number to represent more than a million people. At the very least the number of council members should be doubled perhaps tripled รข€” creating smaller districts whose representatives would be closer to the neighborhoods they represent and, thus, more accountable. Only by increasing the number of districts, shrinking their geographic size and heightening accountability can the council become a true counterbalance to the power of the executive.

At best, democracy is a messy and contentious enterprise. But it would be better to have a crowded ballot and noisy competition than the present system of remote officials exercising power without real accountability. It is time for county citizens to shift their anger from trash hauling and other issues to a debate about overhauling county government.

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Greg Bailey, a writer and a lawyer in private practice, lives and works in Oakville in unincorporated south St. Louis County. In November 2000, he was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for state Senate from the First District.

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