Consolidating Governments Would Leave Black Ferguson With Even Less Power

The wrong road to empowerment.


The splinters of St. Louis.
Warner Bros.

Even if you define the phrase St. Louis region narrowly, so it covers just the City of St. Louis and the adjacent St. Louis County, the place contains 91 municipalities, many of them microscopic. There is also a patchwork of school districts and other local authorities whose jurisdictions do not precisely match the municipal boundaries. And then there's the area's private "governments," hundreds of urban and suburban street associations owned and run by their residents.

Technocrats are always urging the region to consolidate into a more centralized system, and they've rushed to link their cause to the dysfunctions on display in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. They've offered some odd arguments in the process. The strangest of these appeared in The New York Times, where former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith wrote this:

there's a potential solution that could help Ferguson reinvest in itself and also help African-Americans compete for a bigger share of the pie: consolidation with surrounding municipalities, many of which face similar challenges. The St. Louis region has seen some preliminary support for the idea, with resistance concentrated in smaller political units whose leaders are loath to surrender control.

Consolidation would help strapped North County communities avoid using such a high percentage of their resources for expensive public safety overhead, such as fire trucks. It could also empower the black citizens of Ferguson. Blacks incrementally gained power in St. Louis City in part because its size facilitates broader coalitions and alliances. Another benefit of consolidation is the increased political talent pool. Many leaders just aren't interested in running a tiny municipality.

If Smith is calling for a full-fledged amalgamation of all the region's municipalities, his argument is bizarre. There's no way consolidating the majority-black City of St. Louis into the larger, majority-white St. Louis County is going to give African Americans more political power. Nor would it help to wipe away the county towns where the mayor and other officials are black. (Yes, such places exist.) And given that Ferguson has a black majority, isn't its government an easier foe for organizers to target than the vaster, whiter metro area?

Perhaps Smith just wants to fuse the towns found in Ferguson's corner of the county. But that suggestion seems off-base too. Many of these communities already share the costs of various services without sacrificing their sovereignty. (In practice, governmentally splintered regions like St. Louis feature a web of contracts between different jurisdictions, letting local governments take advantage of economies of scale without giving up control. Many of these towns do not, in fact, own fire trucks.) When the locals do sacrifice their sovereignty, the results haven't always been good for black power. MSNBC reports that one reason whites have been running Ferguson's schools is because "Ferguson shares a board with neighboring Florissant, which is mostly white."

Indeed, in Ferguson blacks would have more power if the town's system of government was less centralized. From that same MSNBC story:

For council elections, the city has three districts, or wards, and each ward elects two members each. That means it's edging toward an "at-large" voting system, in which there are no districts at all, and all candidates face the whole electorate. Numerous jurisdictions around the country have used such systems to reduce minority representation, since it makes it harder for numerical minorities to elect their preferred candidates.

At any rate, the main reason whites run majority-black Ferguson is because the town only recently acquired a black majority; the new arrivals aren't well-organized politically yet, and many of them are not registered to vote. Given what has happened over the last two weeks, that is likely to change in the near future. Indeed, it's already changing now. Whatever other barriers they face, blacks in Ferguson have the advantage of numbers; consolidation won't help with that, and in fact would hurt.

There may well be restrictions on local sovereignty that would be good for St. Louis. (According to Smith, the area's police forces "rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue," leading to excessive and discriminatory traffic stops. If so, state or county rules restricting towns' powers in this area would be in order.) But broadly speaking, decentralization is not the problem here—and centralization certainly isn't the road to black empowerment.

Bonus links: The great scholarly defenders of "polycentric" local government were Vincent and Elinor Ostrom; for an overview of their work on the subject, go here. For a relevant passage from Jane Jacobs' The Death of Life of Great American Cities, go here. And for a sign that more solutions can be found in grassroots mobilization than urban consolidation, check out this dispatch from the suburbs of Atlanta, where the government is splintered but blacks have made much more political progress.