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Jun 2004 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Stakeholders Speak
By Keith Savage, John Ginsburg, Janet Becker and Frederick Blanton

Keith Savage

My name is Keith Savage, and I am a city resident, a registered voter and owner of a company that is located in downtown area. When I was asked to become a stakeholder I thought, "Great, here is a process that is attempting to make a change to make the city better." Then I heard a speaker tell an audience at a luncheon that for progress there must be change. For change there must be a change in people's behavior, because without the behavior change there is no change, so there is no progress.

I participated heavily: did research, read the information and replied when I was asked to with the surveys in the meeting. Then I began to see "St. Louis" — people who wanted change but complained because things didn't make sense to them, or some who knew more than others. And then, as always, the race card came into the scene.

Then I began to read how some St. Louisans were tearing down the process because it would have resulted in the need for their behavior to change. They didn't really want to do that because they had better ideas. The buzzwords began: "they are leading us in their direction." I started to watch how others who didn't agree dropped out. The behavior just wasn't going to change, so would there be a process? Then I began to wonder, would there be any progress?

We as St. Louisans seem to moan and complain when there is behavior change, and instead of sticking it out and staying in the process to focus on the change we make excuses to not participate; we give up the struggle.

As always, the newspapers played the race card, saying that the African Americans felt like it wasn't a good idea because they were being led. But the African Americans who stayed in the process began to change their behavior, began to mold the process in the direction of not being led by others. I and others began to feel that there may or may not be progress.

So, I as a citizen will go down in history as a city resident who loves the city, who had the ability to listen and change the process whether it ultimately worked or not. I know that I, Keith Savage, did not quit, was willing to change my behavior, and cared enough to stay to the end to see a process that created progress.

I have some questions that no one has answered for me as of yet. I read the current charter; yes, it's outdated. But has it ever been and will it ever be used? Did we bite off more than we can chew? What will it take for us to live as a region and not as individuals looking out for ourselves? What will it take for all of us to be St. Louisans?

Keith Savage is the owner of Minority Business Enterprise, Inc.

John Ginsburg

Now that the process is over, I feel pretty good about what the group accomplished. Despite numerous struggles along the way, I think the recommendations are good ones for the city. They may not be perfect, but when considering changes to city government on such a large scale, perfection should not be the goal.

The process definitely had its challenges. I had several concerns along the way, which I expressed when they arose. The first dealt with space considerations. The room in which we met was far too small to accommodate the small-group discussions at the beginning of the process. We were crammed around tables and could not hear the others with whom we were supposed to be discussing because the room was so loud with everyone's voices. The fact that stakeholders dropped out or stopped attending along the way actually made the process more manageable. The second concern was time. It was very difficult to leave work early to make it to the History Museum by 4:30, and I often had evening commitments that caused me to leave before the 7:30 ending time. My frustration with my own abilities to attend meetings, as well as wondering if we were making any progress, caused me at one point to quit the Assembly. I was asked to return, however, and in the end, I'm glad I did.

My largest concern, however, was about information sharing. Since we were in meetings all the time, there was never an option to have discussions outside of the Wednesday meetings about what we were discussing. I think in any venture this large it is crucial to be able to bounce ideas off of one another in a less formal setting. Some folks, such as city employees, may have been able to do this, since they work together. But this wasn't the case for me. The conveners refused to set up a website or a listserv for the members to chat about or view information during the rest of the week. The claim was the information divide — that not all stakeholders had access to the Internet. I think this is a cop-out. Such stakeholders could use a public library, and probably could have even been given assistance by other stakeholders to get caught up to the information age. I feel this refusal to make use of existing technology held back potential progress by those who would have taken advantage of it.

Facilitating the Assembly was no easy task. Leading a group of deeply opinioned, sometimes raucous, St. Louis citizens took a thorough effort to allow people to feel like they had a voice and were able to get all of their questions answered. Despite the concerns above, the facilitators should be commended for remaining patient and doing their best to work through a process that was new for everyone participating.

Change is definitely necessary for the city. Discussions about the issues were lengthy. I doubt that anyone agrees 100% with all the recommendations, but nearly everyone agreed that they are all steps in the right direction, myself included.

John Ginsburg is director of the University Center and Student Activities at Webster University, and lives in Dogtown.

Janet Becker

My name is Janet Becker and I live in the Central West End in a wonderfully diverse neighborhood. Basically, I'm a volunteer community activist, mostly involved with low income housing, among many other concerns.

I was attracted to Citizens for Home Rule by their carefully planned diversity of stakeholders and the opportunity to make our city's government as efficient, fair and accountable as possible. The process was excellent, in that it offered various options to be considered and gave everyone a chance to speak and vote.

There are two things I am concerned about. One is that the process was very hurried and stressful at the end, in order to get the issues on the November ballot. That ballot is overloaded already. It could have gone on the March '05 ballot, which would provide ample time to discuss problems that concerned some of the stakeholders. For instance, I wanted to make a rather minor change, but it was too late to tell it. I would prefer to keep the present system that, when the president of the Board of Aldermen is elected, someone from his or her ward is elected to represent that ward. That way, the president doesn't have two responsibilities, which could possibly create a conflict of interest.

I also worry about getting enough signatures for each of the four proposals. People are generally in a hurry and unlikely to ask questions about four somewhat complicated ballot issues before signing each separately. If we had three or four more months it would be easier to get those signatures and have meetings to explain the issues.

Janet Becker lives in the Central West End.

Frederick Blanton

Change. Most people struggle with change ... ever since we had to change schools, neighborhoods, or friends as a child; change jobs, homes, or partners as an adult; change to adjust to the ultimate loss of a friend or family member forever. Change is never easy, but often easily avoidable. Change can produce undesired results, but is often necessary and good.

When the present St. Louis City Charter was written approximately 100 years ago, St. Louis was one of the largest cities in the United States, hosted a grand World's Fair, and even the Olympic Games. But St. Louis apparently had a very corrupt city government, and our vision did not stretch past what is now Forest Park. A subset of white males were the only citizens allowed to vote. There were no cars, cell phones or Internet. A Sheriff maintained peace from the back of a horse. While our present city charter addressed a particular situation at a particular time, it's obvious to me that it was not written with a forward-thinking vision of growth and prosperity in mind, but rather in a spirit of mistrust and avoiding corruption — and perhaps also to avoid change. U.S. cities have changed a great deal over the last 100 years, but St. Louis has not kept pace. Our city charter may or may not have directly contributed to the decline of St. Louis city, but it's clear to me that the present charter has dictated a government structure that has allowed individual city leaders to continue living in the past, avoid difficult but necessary citywide changes and allow our city to fall woefully behind most other great U.S. cities in almost every measurable category.

When the citizens of St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and the rest of the state of Missouri overwhelmingly passed a measure in November 2002 to allow St. Louis city to gain "home rule" over all our "county offices," what were all these voters thinking? That change was not desirable or necessary? Change was acknowledged then, and it is overwhelmingly desired now. I know this because I am involved in my community, I serve on my neighborhood board, I attend other neighborhood meetings with my friends and I have participated in a Board of Stakeholders made up of fellow voters from all over the city of St. Louis. We the people are not satisfied with where St. Louis city is today, we are not happy with the "leadership" that allowed us to get here and we are skeptical of where our leaders are allowing us to go tomorrow. Change is necessary. Change can be good. We want change now.

The most diverse, satisfying and enriching experience I've had in a very long time was serving as a St. Louis stakeholder to analyze and recommend possible changes to the St. Louis city charter. When the call came out publicly in 2003 for citizen volunteers, I eagerly, willfully and independently submitted an application, along with hundreds of other citizen volunteers. Not having the "connections" characterizing most current city politics, I fully expected to not be chosen.

However, Advance St. Louis accomplished what every other community organization I've ever belonged to only dreamt of doing — they assembled hundreds of citizens from every zip code, community, neighborhood, age group, economic class, gender and race, to collectively assess a mutual and common situation, and if necessary, recommend changes to it. What was especially enlightening to me was that in order to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat, Advance St. Louis only had to offer a common and worthy topic, and then accept a majority of the citizens who volunteered. The pool of volunteers was diverse, which ultimately facilitated an even more diverse distribution in the selection of stakeholders.

As an all-volunteer citizens' body, we first defined the context and self-imposed rules for our anticipated work — choosing ideals such as equity, fairness and effectiveness to guide our deliberations. We then studied and debated the current form and structure of St. Louis city government, as well as the form and structure of many other U.S. city governments. And after eight months, we overwhelmingly concluded what I and the vast majority of statewide voters suspected back in November 2002 — that change is necessary for the city of St. Louis to overcome the problems of the past, and to prosper and grow into the future.

As stakeholders, we were sometimes guided by the evolved government structures of more successful cities, as well as by our more traditional state and federal government structures. We strived to recommend specific changes that would streamline the existing city government structure, strengthen the effectiveness of each and every office, and maintain an equal balance of power between the traditional executive and legislative branches of government. And while we were well aware of the limitations that any city charter change would have on our city's current overall situation, we were also hopeful that specific city charter changes could create a new government environment that would allow our city leaders to more proactively and cooperatively accomplish the necessary changes to move our city forward as one united community. No longer would less effective leaders have their fellow colleagues or existing government structure to point to when the city fails in some way. No longer could institutionalized inefficiencies, (like multiple revenue collection points), or just plain city politics, (like aldermanic courtesy), be the sole scapegoat when citywide progress seems stifled.

I fully believe in the process we followed, and I fully support all four of the collective recommendations of the Stakeholder Board. I am currently working to help accurately inform and educate my fellow voters across the city about our process and our recommendations. And I will continue to work diligently for voter approval of our recommendations in November 2004.

Frederick Blanton lives in Lindenwood Park.

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