News » News Stories

Ward Feelers

Is it time to put aldermen on the chopping block?


Mayoral campaigns and cheap talk go together like rum and Coca-Cola. Yet when the three front-running candidates say something as politically unusual as it's time to reduce the number of the Board of Aldermen, there may just be some substance beneath all the stylin' going on.

Of course, one of the three skates gingerly on this political thin ice. The other two, however, have a simple, direct answer to the question "Should the city's legislative body have fewer than 28 aldermen?"

"Yes," says Francis G. Slay, who for the last six years has been president of the board. "We don't need 28 aldermen. By reducing the Board of Aldermen, there could be some efficiencies there. We can do things more efficiently with a lot fewer aldermen."

Yeah, that's a declarative sentence, expressing an opinion that Slay wasnt widely known to hold until now. Could this be, dare we say it, a politically opportune response to a live-grenade question? He is, after all, running for mayor, and dissing the board may play well to the groundlings out there who vote on March 6. But, as with most things Slay says, he maintains eye contact and appears to mean what he's saying.

"After this last census comes out, we'll see how many people the city has lost," says Slay. "In order to do it, to make it more palatable, you need to draw the wards so that people feel comfortable. Some people are going to have to lose jobs, but this isn't about who's on the board; this is about government and what's best for the city."

Freeman Bosley Jr., the former mayor whose father, Freeman Bosley Sr., is 3rd Ward alderman, is big on structural reform and says the city could survive with fewer aldermen.

"I think there's too many, yeah," says Bosley. "In '54, when I was born, we had 850,000 people, and we had 28 members of the Board of Aldermen. Now we've got 330,000, and we've got 28 members of the Board of Aldermen.

"I've talked to my father about this. I think we've got some people on the Board of Aldermen that would be happy being an alderman of a block. You hear what I'm saying? We got to do something. We got to make some changes."

Bosley's most tangible achievement as mayor was the passage of a half-cent sales-tax increase. As the city's first African-American mayor, he was able to convince North St. Louis voters that they wouldn't be left out of the equation, and his decision to dole out half of the revenue 28 ways, to each alderman, guaranteed aldermanic support. But even Bosley knows that when the pie is sliced 28 ways, nobody gets a full meal.

"The larger pool of money that an alderman has to administer in his or her ward, the greater impact he or she can have in terms of what happens in the ward," says Bosley. "Now you've got wards so small you've got an alderman that's held hostage by a block unit or by a neighborhood group, so, in fear of getting at cross-purposes with a particular constituency, we suffer in terms of the quality of leadership that we get."

Mayor Clarence Harmon isn't as blunt as Slay or Bosley when it comes to addressing what would amount to aldermanic layoffs. When first posed the question, he comes back with a classic "I'm in favor of looking at discussing the possibility." Say what? On further questioning, he says the issue should be addressed when the home-rule bill passes in Jefferson City. Before that happens, aldermanic redistricting will take place, later this year. "It's going to be readily apparent when the census is taken that to have 28 members for a population at or below 330,000 people, they're going to have to draw their boundaries in such a way to capture the voting strength that they currently have [that] it's going to look bizarre at best," says Harmon.

Whatever the mayor thinks and whoever the next mayor will be, reducing the number of the Board of Aldermen is a municipal issue, not a county issue, and it can be done without any enabling home-rule legislation out of Jefferson City. Ald. Fred Heitert (R-12th) knows this all too well. Back in 1982, Heitert, the city's only Republican alderman, led his own Charge of the Light Brigade to get an initiative petition on the ballot to reduce the Board of Aldermen to 15 members. It needed 60 percent of the vote to pass; it received 43 percent. Heitert and two other Republican committeemen went $10,000 into debt to get the necessary 30,000 signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.

"I tried. I really tried," says Heitert. "It was very expensive. It was a good education."

Heitert couldn't get any financial support from corporate sources: "Downtown St. Louis?" Heitert shakes his head. "They basically said, "Whatever the issue is, win or lose, we're still dealing with the majority party. Why do I need to support it or not support it? So, thanks, have a nice day.'"

Elected in 1979, Heitert has been an alderman longer than anyone on the board. He still favors reducing the number of his colleagues. "I think it would be worth the hassle, but where do you get the money?" Heitert asks, already knowing the answer. Heitert is outnumbered 27-1 by Democrats on the board. "I don't care if the board's all-Democrat or all-Republican," he says. "If you're a businessman, you're not going to want to offend the party in power, so you're not going to support an issue that's going to offend them."

And for politicians, there is risk involved. The only Democratic alderman who backed Heitert's proposal back in '82 was David Pentland. For his reward, Pentland's 25th Ward was moved during redistricting from the Central West End to South St. Louis. To run for re-election, Pentland had to move.

"I moved there just long enough to lose," says Pentland of the residence he took on Potomac Street, just off Kingshighway near Uncle Bill's Pancake House. "I moved out of that apartment two days after I left [the board]."

Pentland later moved to the county, but he continues a general-law practice in the city, located on McPherson Avenue. He believes he did the right thing and still thinks the city would be better off with fewer aldermen.

"It's not just a matter of picking out a number, it's the concept of being able to show the business community that this city is looking to the future and is able to streamline itself," says Pentland. "There's also the reason of making the wards so that you can have more of a mixture in some of them than you have now, rather than being all-black or all-white. By dividing them in half, you could make it more of a mixture, where race would be less of an issue."

Cost is one consideration, but proponents of aldermanic reduction don't necessarily think having fewer aldermen would save taxpayers much expense. With 28 aldermen receiving $28,000 per year, the rough annual cost of salaries, not considering benefits, is $784,000. The city could pay seven aldermen $50,000 each for about half the current aldermanic-salary budget. Use 1950 as a baseline: Each of the 28 aldermen represented 30,000 people. At that ratio, 11 aldermen could represent the current population of 330,000. Again, they all could be paid $50,000 a year and still save the city money.

But don't look for those numbers to be thrown around anytime soon. The change could be put on the ballot either through an initiative petition by voters, which would require about 20,000 signatures, or through a board bill passed by the aldermen. Neither is likely to happen soon. And despite Slay's and Bosley's support, it's a loaded issue. In 1996, a 20-member Mayor's Advisory Committee recommended sweeping changes to city government, including making "county" elected offices appointive, but decided not to explore cutting the number of aldermen because, as committee chairman Bert Walker described it, the issue was a "political hot potato."

As home-rule issues bubble to the surface and county offices are examined, aldermanic reform is bound to surface as well. Pentland thinks the discussion has symbolic importance, showing that there are no sacred cows at City Hall.

"You have to show a tangible good-faith effort to make changes. That was one of the places where it could be done with the least amount of damage to anybody," says Pentland. "You have to show signs of improvement in this town, because decay has a life of its own. Once decay starts, it'll keep growing unless you really have a way to start something in the opposite direction with a life of its own. We had none. We still don't."

BAD TO THE BO: It's Ralph Nader! It's Clarence Darrow! No, it's Rob Lee! Apparently Lee, whose consumer struggles with Bo Beuckman Ford ["Short Cuts," RFT, Dec. 6] put him on KMOV-TV (Channel 4) and twice in the pages of the crusading weekly you are now reading, also has legal skills.

Beuckman took Lee to court to get a restraining order to keep him from demonstrating in front of the Ford dealership, but the dealership's pricey lawyers were no match for Lee, who defended himself. St. Louis County Circuit Judge Carolyn Whittington ruled in favor of Lee, allowing him to continue his picketing in front of the West County dealer as long as he stayed off the dealer's property and didn't resort to allegations about Beuckman's breaking any laws. Saying "BO RIPPED US OFF!" is apparently okeedokee. Lee says he has suspended his picketing and believes he is close to an agreement that will end his protracted nightmare.

PERPETUAL-MOTION MACHINE: Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman has never before displayed a knack for the scientific, but it just may be that he's discovered the journalistic equivalent of perpetual motion. Print a request for reader response to your column -- make sure it's about a positive, feel-good topic -- and before you know it, there's enough input for one, two, three, four columns. Where will it end? On Jan. 12, Freeman requested that readers send in their "favorite ways to celebrate the special character of the St. Louis area." Greg, a man and a columnist who is, from all accounts, well intended and beneficent, effused that these entries could be called "uniquities." Little could the reader have expected what drudgery lay ahead.

The stream-of-consciousness-raising "uniquities" sent in by bubbly readers included brain sandwiches, the Collinsville ketchup bottle, Calvary Cemetery and hoosiers. Can it get any better than this? Apparently not. Freeman's space on Sunday, Jan. 28, and his page one columns on the "Metro" section front on Jan. 18 and 30 and Feb. 1 were devoted to lists of other things to feel good about -- the Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden and, hold onto your hats, Ted Drewes frozen custard. And what about Onondaga Cave? Huh?

Considering that Greg is responsible for a thrice-weekly Post-Dispatch column, hosts a KWMU (90.7 FM) show four days a week and hosts the weekly Mosaic program on KETC-TV (Channel 9), maybe this form of panhandling for column ideas is to be expected. Of course, would a request for St. Louis' "iniquities" have been as effective? It might have spurred such donations as pork steaks, the city of Overland, St. Louis encephalitis, the easy availability of lead-paint dust, our humid summers, our bone-chilling winters, our town's high rate of syphilis and the motto of our city's public schools -- "Destination, Accreditation."

The Regional Chamber and Growth Association's ad campaign, "St. Louis: We Got It Good," spurred Freeman's request for "uniquities." Short Cuts' take on the RCGA ad assault triggered a different reader response letters calling Short Cuts' humble narrator a "smug nihilist" and, more directly, "an asshole." One anonymous letter began with "Get out of town! Go!"

Friendly and insightful readers -- another St. Louis uniquity.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.