by Michael R. Allen
There will be many candidates for public office in St. Louis during the spring election cycle. The office of President of the Board of Alderman, aldermanic seats in even-numbered wards and two school board seats are on the ballot. The aldermanic candidates in particular are seeking or defending legislative power. They will make promises to voters about a number of issues.
Voters interested in urban issues need to make sure that candidates get their stances on the record. While a soft promise is better than none at all, the difference can be indiscernible. Aldermen introduce and vote on legislation impacting the built environment. Much of this legislation includes redevelopment ordinances — most often “blighting” ordinances — as well as tax abatement and tax increment financing. However, aldermen can do much more than dutifully respond to developers’ requests for support. They shape, create and interpret public policies. They are more than the functionaries that they often claim to be.
We should ask candidates for specific promises. If a candidate wants to “preserve old buildings,” we need to ask if that means that he would introduce a much-needed ordinance to reinstate city-wide preservation review. If a candidate thinks tax abatement is out of control, she needs to specify what legislative route she will pursue to address that. Talk is cheap, and either the elected candidates will do something to make policy changes their rhetoric endorses or they won’t.
Our support for aldermanic candidates in the city should be contingent on receiving specific legislative actions he or she will take. Aldermen act through legislation, and candidates for aldermanic office won’t talk in terms of specific bills we should be careful. Our support should hinge on firm promises based on the power that they seek. Even though many incumbents avoid advancing public policy change, aldermen have more power than other elected officials to determine what our built environment policies will be. No changes in LRA practices, preservation review, nuisance property enforcement or the zoning code can come about without an act of the board of aldermen. That’s where a lot of power lies under the city charter. We should be wary of candidates for the board who won’t tell us how they will use that power — and those incumbents who claim that they don’t have it.