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St. Louis voters could create commission to update 109-year-old city charter

The 1914 St. Louis City Charter still includes many outdated terms and requirements that reformers see as obstacles to progress in a modern government.

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis could soon start a comprehensive process to rewrite its charter document for the first time in more than a century.

When city voters head to the polls on Tuesday, they'll see a "Proposition C" on their ballot asking if the city should create a Charter Commission for the first time since 1949. That effort ultimately failed when voters rejected the proposed changes, which left the original 1914 document in place.

"A whole lot of the city wasn't allowed to vote in 1914," Alderwoman Annie Rice said. "So the people that voted this into place are very different than the people that we are now. The city is different. Eight-hundred-thousand people at one point down to 300,000."

She hopes the ballot question will prompt voters to consider, "What are the things that we could structurally change that would make things work better?"

Reform advocates see the charter commission as a rare chance to require more transparency, eliminate redundant or unnecessary elections, and remove stubborn obstacles to progress in modernizing government.

"As it's written right now, [hiring] has to go through the personnel department rather than through each particular agency, which sometimes makes it difficult," President of the Board of Aldermen Megan Green said. "The agencies, I think, would like a little bit more autonomy on being able to hire their own staff. And I think because of those processes, it sometimes slows down our ability to hire people quickly."

Other single-issue amendments have been added to the charter over the years, such as Proposition D in 2020. However, the changes to adopt approval voting failed to anticipate scenarios where only two candidates would file to run in the primary. The result ended up with several candidates being forced to run in an uncontested primary race that they were already predetermined to win.

"There's lots of little tweaks that could be made that could make things a lot better," Rice said. "There's potentially larger tweaks of things that might work."

If 60% of voters approve of Proposition C, the Board of Aldermen and the Mayor would begin the process of reviewing applications to seat nine members on a charter commission. That panel would be tasked with soliciting public input as they draft and propose changes for voters to consider every ten years.

Because the charter requires that its contents "must be consistent with the Constitution and state laws," several new Missouri statutes and subsequent lawsuits have bent and twisted the original language of the city charter to include footnotes, disclaimers, and exceptions. 

One lawsuit in particular from the 1950s stands out as a rather odd example. An ambitious would-be fireman was initially turned away because the Civil Service Commission said he didn't have enough natural teeth to do the job. When he sued, the courts overruled the city. Now there's a stipulation in the city charter that you don't necessarily have to have 20 natural teeth to fight fires in St. Louis.  

"The world is completely different than it was in 1914, and we need to get with the times," Green said. 

She highlighted several portions of the city charter that refer to men holding positions of power:

"At the general city election in 1917, and every four years thereafter, a mayor and comptroller shall be elected each for a term of four years and until his successor qualifies."

Even the word "aldermen" is a thousand-year-old medieval term from Old English that just means "older man."

"Women didn't have the right to vote at that point in time," Green said. "So much has changed. And I think it's time that the city of Saint Louis come into the 21st century."

The 109-year-old document includes outdated industry terms for licensing occupations or equipment like: apron supply, auction criers, blueprint or photostat makers, clairvoyants, feather renovating, trading stamp enterprises, hawkers; hucksters, peddlers, horseshoers, kalsomining, lithographers, merry-go-rounds, mirror resilvering, moth proofing, steamboat lines, phonographs, poultry shows, steamships, and tanners. 

The charter also says, "Since telegraphs are instruments of interstate commerce they are not subject to a license tax."

"Yeah, we haven't used telegrams in a while," Green deadpanned.

If voters approve the start of this process on Tuesday, they'll get a second chance to review and accept any proposed changes in 2024 before they take effect.

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