by Michael R. Allen
Next week, while the author of this post is safely ensconced on a job site in Oklahoma, St. Louisans will select a Democratic candidate for Mayor. Given tradition and barring mercurial rises in Green Party prospects, the Democrat will go on to win the general election in April.
While the aldermen still hold extraordinary power in our system, the mayor has a fair share. Incumbent Francis Slay has honed that power deftly, more so than most of his recent predecessors. Until the city gets a modern charter, whoever is mayor will have to muster powers of persuasion as much as actual powers of office to get things done.
The mayor has power over matters related to historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization. Here’s what the next mayor should do to make the best use of those powers:
Diversion of demolition funds controlled by the Building Division and Land Reutilization into a building stabilization fund. Tearing a vacant house down sometimes costs a lot more than brick repairs and plastic guttering. The next mayor should make sure that demolition and stabilization are equal options – a move that actually might save the city money.
Appointment of more young people to public boards and commissions. Everyone talks about the energy of young people, but the only energy that counts in the system is energy with power. Take off the Vanguard Cabinet’s training wheels before everyone hits 40.
Direct the Community Development Agency to end aldermanic allocation of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. St. Louis gets CDBG funds to fight blight, not to let aldermen play Santa Claus. Since 1984, the city has split up CDBG funds by ward, letting aldermen appropriate it to programs that may not always meet program guidelines. Meanwhile vacancy spreads across the city from The Ville to Gravois Park. Let’s get it right.
Withhold support from projects that include excess parking. Mayor Slay has used his informal powers to goad CVS away from a horrible Lindell Boulevard drug store plan. The next mayor should keep up that level of action, and refuse to sign redevelopment bills for projects that include excess parking. The mayor should push for setting a parking maximum ordinance. Right now, we have parking minimums.
End the requirement that a citizen have a letter of aldermanic support to buy a city-owned building, and get city-owned parcels listed in the MLS. The Land Reutilization Authority requires such a letter. This makes the transaction less like a real estate transaction and more like a political deal. Likewise, LRA does not list its properties in the Multiple Listing Service or any other conventional real estate database. The next mayor needs to fix these problems so more property gets back on the city tax rolls.
Veto spot zoning and moratorium bills. Business licensing and building codes should apply predictably across the city. Yet aldermen are constantly interfering with city codes by pushing legislation tailored to serve local interests. That makes the city an unfriendly environment for small businesses. The next mayor should veto bills that tack on special changes — including street and alley closures.
Support citywide preservation review of demolition permits. This is related to the previous item. The current preservation ordinance that allows aldermen to exempt wards was pushed by Mayor Clarence Harmon in 1999. The next mayor should close up the loopholes. Many aldermen have voluntarily placed previously excluded wards (14, 21) under review anyway.
Use the city’s website to publish useful information. The votes of the Board of Aldermen, Board of Estimate & Apportionment and other bodies are nearly impossible to find unless people like fishing through PDFs. The next mayor should push to make this information accessible. Likewise, many city departments don’t even list the names of officers and their contact information. That needs to be online.
Implement the Sustainability Plan. Parts of the Sustainability Plan apply to city agencies, including recommendations that city-funded demolitions utilize materials recycling methods that minimize waste. Will the next mayor direct the Building Division to change its practices, or will the plan sit on a shelf only to be waved in the face of private parties trying to do business in the city?
Oppose use of city incentives for creating jobs below the standards of the minimum wage ordinance. Sorry, but a Dollar General is not enough of a reason for the city to issue tax increment financing or tax abatement. Instead of using these tools to let developers (who often don’t live or even work in the city) to gain wealth, the next mayor should only use these tools if they create wealth for city residents.
Make sure public buildings have preservation protections. City Hall is not listed in the National Register of Historic Places. What? While the building is a City Landmark, it doesn’t have National status. City Hall and other buildings owned by the city should get local and national designations to guide future stewardship and celebrate our awesome civic architecture.
I could go on, but the mayor’s term will only be four years. Until 2023, when we get a more reasonably-sized Board of Aldermen, mayors will have an uphill battle on policy reform. I just hope that whoever wins on Tuesday follows the tactical lead of the incumbent in making the mayor a force that can cut through the aldermanic system.
Feel free to fire away in the comments section…