Politics

Are City Councils A Relic of The Past?

One of America's oldest political institutions isn't adapting very well to 21st-century urban life.
by | April 2003

You notice two things right off about the 19th Ward in St. Louis. The first is that pretty much everywhere there's construction, there's also a large sign reading, "Assistance for the project provided by Michael McMillan, Alderman." The second is just how limited Alderman McMillan's domain happens to be. Walk a few minutes in any direction, and you're out of his ward. You don't see the signs anymore. You also don't see as much construction.

Within the friendly confines of the 19th, St. Louis looks like a city busily reviving. There are new high schools being built, scattered apartments and loft projects underway, efforts to rejuvenate the historic arts and entertainment district, and a HOPE VI retrofit of an enormous public housing facility. While all this activity has some powerful people behind it, just one person has had a hand in all of it, and that is McMillan himself. Only 31, he has been on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen for six years, and in that time has made it clear that his ambitions for his ward--and by extension, himself--are high. "I don't have other obligations," he says. "I'm not married, I have no kids, I have no other job. It's one of my competitive edges."

Cross the ward boundary, and you find out what "competitive edge" means in St. Louis politics. North of the 19th, and for some distance to the east, stretch a series of neglected, depopulated neighborhoods that do not in any way suggest urban revival. This is, in part, a consequence of private market decisions: These neighborhoods don't have much clout within the corporate suites where such decisions are made. But equally important, they don't have much clout in local government, either--at least not when it comes to large-scale development projects.

That's because in St. Louis, each of the 28 ward aldermen is the gatekeeper of development in his or her little slice of the city. If they're shrewd and well connected, like Michael McMillan, the ward does fine. If they're inattentive, or maladroit at cutting deals, or on the outs with local developers, or just plain picky, which is the case in more than a few wards, hardly anything gets done. "You don't see a Mike McMillan coming out of some of these devastated wards," says one City Hall insider. "They have a voice, but if it's weak, what do they really get?"

To be sure, even the weak aldermen in St. Louis have their uses. They get potholes filled and streetlights fixed, offer advice on how to handle code violations or deal with housing court, and see that garbage gets picked up in alleyways where contractors dump it illegally. This hands-on attention is hardly a bad thing. In the words of Jim Shrewsbury, who as president of the Board of Aldermen runs at large and is its 29th member, the city's deeply entrenched system of political micro-management "protects neighborhoods and gives people a sense of influence." As members of a democratic institution, that's what city councilmen are supposed to do. But when that's about ALL many of them do, in a city that is struggling to emerge from years of economic debility, even Shrewsbury agrees that something is wrong. The system, he says, "creates a sense of parochialism and feudalism. We become the Balkans."

FEUDING AND HOT AIR

The concept of balkanization could be applied these days to councils and boards of aldermen in many of America's biggest cities--perhaps most of them. Look around the country and you can quickly compile a dossier of dysfunction.

Sometimes it is a case of pursuing tangents, as the Baltimore City Council likes to do. In a recent commentary about what it called "the hot-air council," the Baltimore Sun suggested that frequent resolutions on foreign affairs, hearings on the differences between telephone exchanges, and debate about counteracting "the negative images of Baltimore, as portrayed in 'real-crime' fiction, TV dramas and movies" suggested that the members didn't have enough real work to do.

Other councils become so embroiled in internal maneuvering that they lose their relevance. In Philadelphia, where a former mayor once referred to the city council as "the worst legislative body in the free world," there was a brief period of council influence in the mid- 1990s, when John Street was council president and worked closely with Mayor Ed Rendell. Now, however, Street is mayor and finds himself in regular tangles with various council factions. "It's like an opera where everybody has a different libretto," says Mark Alan Hughes, an urban affairs professor at the University of Pennsylvania and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. "The melodrama is clear, it's just the meaning that's completely obscure."

There are councils where bickering and infighting are so intense that the entire body acquires an image of irresponsible flakiness. In Detroit recently, one member charged that supporters of the city's mayor had sabotaged the electric massager in her desk chair to give her a jolt when she used it. Not surprisingly, the public's response was disdainful--what most people saw was a group of elected officials engaged in sabotaging its own reputation.

There are places where, if you want to find the future of the city being pondered, the council chamber is the last place you'd look. "What you have," says a close watcher of civic affairs in Pittsburgh, "is a group of people who primarily deal with very mundane, housekeeping things in their districts. That's what they do, it's what they're interested in, and it's the way they see their power." The real power lies in the mayor's office and with the city's still-strong civic and corporate leadership.

Finally, there are councils whose problem has not been an absence of energy but a hyperactive compulsion to argue over everyday management decisions and prevent important decisions from being made. In Hartford, Connecticut, the city charter for years gave most of the political power to the council, but the council had a long history of intervening in the day-to-day administration of city services and tying itself up in petty squabbles corrosive to the morale of residents, as well as city employees. In the 1990s, the council essentially torpedoed the program of Mayor Mike Peters, who appeared to have broad voter support for his economic reform and revival ideas. Small surprise that when they were finally given a straightforward chance last November to change things, the city's voters opted to create a new form of government that strengthened the mayor at the council's expense.

None of this is to say that councils in large cities never tackle important issues or play a key role in crafting policy. Council members in Los Angeles, for instance, have a great deal to say about basic infrastructure issues, in their districts and across the city. And for all its infighting, the Philadelphia City Council did help to re-shape Street's ambitious urban renewal program, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, to be more responsive to neighborhood concerns.

But in all too many large cities these days, the power of councils is, at most, the power to stop things. The wellsprings of citywide innovation and progress lie elsewhere. It is telling that until this past year, neither of the two major national organizations speaking for cities addressed the specific concerns of big-city councils. The National League of Cities is dominated by small- and medium-sized jurisdictions; the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which focuses on larger cities, doesn't address council members at all. "We're literally locked out of the one national group that deals with big cities," observes Nick Licata, a Seattle council member.

Licata, who was struck by the dearth of representation from places like his when he first attended a League of Cities meeting, has put together a new "Central Cities Council" at the League, for council members in the 100 or so largest cities to share information and strategies on common issues. "We're not communicating on a regular basis, we're not exchanging information on local programs we can learn from, and on the national level, when we should be lobbying, we don't have our act together," he says. "This should help us link up."

Still, the sense of floundering one often gets watching big-city councils isn't really a surprise. Over the years, as mayors have moved to get a handle on crime, economic development and even school management, and as semi-private institutions--redevelopment authorities, stadium authorities, transit authorities, convention center authorities, tax increment finance districts--have proliferated, the role of councils in the most critical issues of urban governance has atrophied. Individual council members, the Michael McMillans of the country, may still have a share of power and influence, but the bodies on which many of them serve have lost their identity. "I think city councils have been neutered in most cases," says Dennis Judd, an urban affairs specialist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "They are engaging in the most trivial aspects of urban government, rather than the most important aspects."

Under these circumstances, it is hard not to wonder whether city councils are becoming relics of the political past, poorly adapted to making the decisions of 21st-century urban life. In all too many cases, they seem in danger of becoming the dinosaurs of American local government.

OUT OF THE LOOP

There was a moment not long ago when the St. Louis Board of Aldermen managed to command national attention, but it's one local politicians would rather forget. In the midst of a tense and racially charged ward redistricting debate in 2001, Alderman Irene Smith was conducting a filibuster when she asked whether she could go to the bathroom. Told by Board President Shrewsbury that the rules required her to yield the floor to do so, she summoned her supporters, who brought in a trash can and surrounded her with improvised drapes while she appeared to urinate into the can. "I was mortified," says a St. Louis politician who happened to be watching on cable television at the time. "If you've been in the aldermanic chambers, they call to mind a time when the city was a powerful city, a grand place. To think of her staging that in there! The stock of the entire board of aldermen went down." Smith was later indicted on charges of public indecency but was acquitted in January on the reasoning that no one could know for sure whether she was actually urinating or simply pretending to do so.

To those who spend their time in City Hall, the incident was puzzling, because Smith, a lawyer and former judge, is generally seen as one of the more careful and thoughtful members of the board. "She's bright, she knows how to read the law, she asks tough questions in committee hearings," says one aldermanic insider. But to many in the city at large, there was little question about how to interpret her outburst: Not even its own members accord the board much respect any longer.

The fact is, for all the opportunities that ambitious aldermen have to promote development within their own neighborhoods, it's been a while since the board has played a significant role in shaping matters of vital interest to St. Louis as a whole. One of the biggest issues on the plate of Mayor Francis Slay--himself a former board president-- is a new stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, and while pieces of the complex deal he has put together will require aldermanic approval, the board itself has had very little role in constructing it.

"When I was in City Hall," says a former aide to one of Slay's recent predecessors, "I only went to the board if I absolutely had to. The truth is, I never felt the need to involve people there on the front end in order to get something passed on the back end. In the 1970s or '80s, if a mayor had a stadium project, he'd have had to line up five or six people on the board before he even went public with it." Because that didn't happen in the current situation, the aide argues, this stadium deal is just a stadium deal--it is not part of any broader city commitment to, say, refurbishing public sports facilities or community centers in the neighborhoods.

There are any number of theories about what has led the board of aldermen to its diminished citywide import, and many of them focus on its size. The 28 wards were created in 1914, when St. Louis had 680,000 people. They remained in place when the city reached its peak of 850,000 in 1950. And they're still there, half a century later, when it's down to 340,000. This means that each alderman represents about 12,500 people. Chicago's 50-member city council, which is one of the largest in the country, would have to grow to 200 members if its wards were the same size as those in St. Louis.

If all you expect of an alderman is close attention to garbage pickup and street repairs, of course, small wards are just fine. But they have a cost, as well. For one thing, they form a low barrier to political entry. In some wards, a politician needs as few as 800 votes to get elected. When the city was larger, says former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., "you had to be a real leader to get on the board, someone who could put together thousands and thousands of votes. That plays into your ability to…put people together and pull them in a direction. So as the years have gone by, the number of go-to people has diminished."

To be sure, it's possible to overstate the case. "Just because we were once a city of 800,000 people doesn't mean we had rocket scientists serving on the board of aldermen," notes Jim Shrewsbury. "I don't think someone makes a decision between running a corporation and being an alderman." But it's equally true that city councils are, in essence, a political proving ground--former U.S. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, for instance, got his start on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. The less skill and vision they demand of their members, the poorer a city's civic life is likely to be.

"If you can make the council a place where young people who are interested in public policy think they ought to be, then it serves as a farm system to create people who understand how local government works and who have sympathy for it," says Mike Jones, a former alderman who now runs the regional Empowerment Zone. "Because the real question is, Where do you get local leadership from? On a city council where you've got to work hard to get elected, it takes good political instincts and hones them into political and policy-making skills."

IRONCLAD PRIVILEGE

Over time, the small size of the constituencies and the rules of the institution itself have combined to make the lure of parochialism more and more irresistible. In the 1950s, following passage of the federal Urban Renewal Act of 1949, aldermen in St. Louis suddenly found themselves with real power in their neighborhoods as the arbiters of development. That law, says Lana Stein, a University of Missouri-St. Louis historian, "brought a huge pot of money, and the aldermen had to pass bills authorizing urban renewal projects and highway projects. They were courted by Civic Progress [the group of corporate movers and shakers at the time] and by the mayor. Even though there were working- class people and saloon keepers elected to the board, they became a much bigger deal because of what they were voting on."

But if the urban renewal money brought the board instant influence, it also led inexorably to parochialism. As requests grew for new housing or redevelopment in the wards, they ran into the ironclad principle of aldermanic privilege--the notion that no member of the board would interfere in matters affecting another member's ward.

Fifty years later, developers still need help from the city, and that usually means a vote from the aldermen, supporting a "blighting" provision or providing a tax abatement or creating a tax-increment financing district. If you happen to live in a ward with an active, responsive alderman who knows how to put together development deals, you're fortunate. But there's scarcely anyone left on the board looking at what makes sense for the city as a whole. Aldermen rarely feel any right or responsibility to look closely at deals being made in others' wards.

When a group of downtown residents recently challenged plans backed by their alderman to demolish a historic, marble-fronted building to make way for a parking garage, the board deferred to the alderman's wishes by essentially ignoring the protest. The demolition plans were backed by the mayor and by his allies, and the developers insisted that the garage was vital to their plans, even though there are underused garages within a block's walk.

The local residents, part of a small but growing group of loft dwellers who form one of the few tangible signs of hope for St. Louis' downtown, attended the one aldermanic hearing on the matter and found no one to talk to. "It was a farce," says Margie Newman, one of their leaders. "There was no opportunity to make our case. Literally, there was an alderman with the Sunday comics held up in front of his face, and of the six on the committee, three were wandering in and out. Remember, this was at our one opportunity to bring our case."

Indeed, confirms Matt Villa, a young alderman who represents the city's far southeast, there is little incentive on the board to pay attention to what others are doing when you don't have to. "In our neighborhood," he says, "there's a neighborhood association and a housing corporation, and we sit down to plan the next five years and never take into consideration what other wards are doing. I don't even know how a citywide plan would be embraced by 28 aldermen."

And because the board itself doesn't have an independent capacity to look carefully at measures that come before it--it has very few staff members, and those who want help, such as Michael McMillan, raise funds on the side to pay for an assistant--it often approves important decisions with scarcely any scrutiny at all. "We give pay raises and pension raises and things like that," Villa says, "without really knowing the fiscal impact. The alderman who's sponsored it explains, we pass it, and years later it turns out it wasn't a $5 million impact, it was a $50 million impact."

CHARTER CHANGES

If there's anyone unhappy with this state of affairs, it's Jim Shrewsbury, who as president would like the board to become more independent and active. "The truth is, most legislation and ideas originate with the administration," he says. "The vast majority of bills are administration-sponsored bills; they have the resources and the interest and the concentration. Sometimes, I wish we were more careful and would scrutinize them more carefully. And I wish there were more innovation, that more legislation originated here." But he is also quick to point out that in the calculus of the 28 politicians who serve alongside him, that may be more of a risk than they want to take. "I know that on Election Day, the one thousand people who hate me will be there," he explains. "I don't know how many of the thousands who like me will be. I'm prepared to lose my office for something that was in "Profiles in Courage." If it's not, you start to wonder whether it's worth getting involved."

Yet it's possible that change will come to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen anyway. Although St. Louis is technically a "strong mayor" city, the political reality is that the mayor is constitutionally among the weakest in the country for a city this size. Power has to be shared with a half-dozen other elected officials; the state controls the police through a board on which the mayor has only his own seat; budget decisions and city contracts have to be approved by two of the three members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which is made up of the mayor, comptroller and aldermanic president. "St. Louis is probably the nation's best case of an unreformed government," says the University of Illinois' Dennis Judd, referring to the nationwide movement early in the last century to give mayors enhanced authority. "It's as if it never was touched by the reformers."

Like the board's awkward size, all of this is a result of the 1914 city charter, which is still in effect. But last November, voters statewide approved a home-rule provision for St. Louis that will allow it to take up charter change. Although most of the attention is likely to go to placing more power in the hands of the mayor, there is plenty of sentiment among civic leaders for shrinking the size of the board of aldermen.

This is happening in other big cities with similar problems. Contraction is on the docket in Milwaukee, where some aldermen themselves have proposed shrinking the Common Council from 17 to 15 members, and in Baltimore, where voters last November approved trimming the city council from 19 to 15. Baltimore's initiative, backed by a coalition of labor unions and community organizations, was opposed by most of the city's elected leadership, but it passed overwhelmingly.

It's unclear how much impact tinkering with council size will really have, in St. Louis or anywhere else. But it's clear that some fundamental changes will have to take place for city councils such as these to maintain any real relevance at all in coming years.

By any standard, there is still important work for these bodies to do. Cities need robust political institutions, and by all rights, city councils ought to be among them--they are, after all, the one institution designed to serve as the collective voice of residents and communities, whether their members are elected in districts or at large. But when little is expected of them, because a city's most important decisions are made elsewhere, it's no surprise that over time the ambitions of their members shrink to take in smaller and smaller patches of turf.

There are undeniable benefits to this. Two decades ago, voters in St. Louis overwhelmingly turned down an initiative to cut the number of wards. They felt, says Shrewsbury, "that government had gotten so complicated and big, the only way their voice could be heard was having an alderman who paid close attention." It may be that all most people really want from their city council is the kind of personal stroking that is often hard to come by elsewhere in a big city. But it's also hard to escape the feeling that, as Judd puts it, "when citizens are consulted these days, it's about things that are less and less consequential. What we're seeing is the slow strangulation of local democracy."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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