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Steve Stenger explains why he changed his mind on the city-county merger

Under Better Together's proposal, Stenger stands to become the newly empowered "metro mayor" in 2023.
Credit: Dilip Vishwanat
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has emerged as a pivotal figure in Better Together's plan to merge the city and county.

For years, many wondered how the county, with greater wealth and population than the city, could ever be courted to embrace such a proposal. But Stenger now wholeheartedly backs it (he gave the primary remarks at a reveal ceremony last month). Under Better Together's proposal, Stenger, who's been in his position since 2015, stands to become the newly empowered "metro mayor" in 2023 and would not face election until November 2024. That's if a constitutional amendment creating a new "metro city" passes a statewide vote in November 2020.

The Business Journal on Friday sat down with Stenger at his office in Clayton.

You didn't always support a merger. Five years ago, the initial conversation centered around bringing the city into the county as a municipality. As a County Council member, I didn't think that was a good idea because the county wouldn't have much authority over what happened within that geographic boundary. That's very different than the plan being proposed now.

I was thinking much more parochial for whatever reason. It was, in part, due to a lack of experience, to be honest with you. I had never sat in an executive seat in county government. I didn't have the overall view that I have now: how county government interacts with other government entities, the business community, with other states, how our departments deliver services to their various recipients.

Also, within the first year of taking office (as county executive), we started to confront regional issues. One of them was minimum standards for municipalities for policing. We were looking to have some kind of uniformity, some basic standards. Those were completely rejected and opposed by the municipalities. That was really where my interaction with Better Together started. We asked for their help, and this allowed us to start a conversation.

Did you help craft Better Together's plan? Was there a negotiation? There was no negotiation really. That's evident because the other two chief elected officials from the county — the assessor and prosecuting attorney — would ascend to those positions in the new government as well.

About a year and a half or two years ago, we started having telephone conversations and meetings with Better Together. I began to learn of their plans: that they really wanted to move forward on a major change to regional governance. So in my mind, I wanted the county to be represented in that conversation. I view this as a train that was coming. The county needed to be somewhere on that train and not hit by that train.

Is there anything you insisted be included? I gave input around having a demographer draw lines for the 33-person council. We did something similar to that in 2012, when we redrew lines for the County Council.

I don't view this as a Band-Aid, but I think crime stats merging helps us on a national level. It also allows us, with one unified command, to address regional crime issues on a much better footing.

Having one regional voice on economic development, one forum for making those regional decisions without fragmentation, that's important as well.

If the government seat is downtown, as St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson insisted, won't that leave a gaping hole in Clayton? I don't think that's been decided at this point. I would say there's really no risk of leaving a vacuum in Clayton. A government covering 1.3 million people will have plenty of resources in Clayton still, I would say just as much as is here now. We'll also have a presence downtown, and probably elsewhere in the county as well. Remember, the government activity coming out of the municipalities is going to be much lower.

If this doesn't pass, you could be left facing a lot of angry constituents. I have to step back and take a look at my entire life. I've spent about half my life in the city and half in the county. I've lived in northwest county, Clayton, South County and Ladue. I went to UMSL for accounting and SLU for law school. I've always lived here. There is going to be an initial gut reaction to this. But I think it's one that isn't completely informed yet. As the plan makes its way in detail to members of the public through town halls and community organizers, I think opinions can change.

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