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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Editorial: St. George Slays the Dragon of Fractured Government

By the Editorial Board - St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2011 12:10 am

Every year since 1955, one St. Louisan, usually a corporate big shot, has been chosen as "Citizen of the Year." The voting is done by a committee of past winners; they tend to choose people like themselves.

Here's an alternative for 2011: Carmen Wilkerson, the last mayor of the South County municipality of St. George. On Tuesday, thanks to a movement led by Ms. Wilkerson, voters in St. George, population 1,337, decided to disincorporate their town. St. Louis County now has 90 municipalities, not 91.

It's a start.

For decades, studies have shown fractured government to be a major impediment to the growth of the region. The biggest problem is the city-county split, but within St. Louis County itself, the vast proliferation of municipal governments and other taxing agencies has led to wasteful and inefficient government. In some towns, city services are poor to non-existent.

Everybody talks about it, even the big shots. But Carmen Wilkerson, a 53-year-old legal secretary, did something about it.

In 2001, divorced and living in McAllen, Texas, she renewed acquaintances via with her high school sweetheart, Stephen Wilkerson of St. Louis. They were married, and, in 2003, they moved to St. George.

In 2005, Ms. Wilkerson, angry at her city's government, was elected to an aldermanic seat. It would be an interesting experience.

In 2006, the mayor resigned after being arrested on a drug possession charge. In January 2009, after a series of scandals, the city disbanded its nine-member police force and contracted with St. Louis County for police services.

Alas, this caused a major revenue hit. Like many of the county's small municipalities, St. George relied heavily on traffic ticket revenue, much of it from an infamous speed trap on Reavis Barracks Road. City officials began urging St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch to have his officers write more speeding tickets, Ms. Wilkerson said. He refused, she said, saying that monitors showed the typical car on Reavis Barracks was going 31 miles an hour.

Earlier this year, Ms. Wilkerson said, she learned that city officials had been in contact with officials in far-off Charlack, a near-north county municipality famous for government-by-speed trap. The idea was that Charlack would send officers across 10 or 11 county municipalities to run speed traps in St. George, she said.

That was the last straw. In Feburary, Ms. Wilkerson fired off "two pages of ranting" to St. George residents, pointing out the city's problems. "Let's follow the money," she said. "What has St. George done for you?"

As an afterthought, she said, she added that she might run for mayor on a platform of disincorporating the city. The response was overwhelming, she said, so she quietly put together a slate of candidates and went door-to-door before the April municipal elections. They pointed out that low turnout in April elections benefits the status quo; if you want change, you have to vote, they said.

Turnout was three times higher than it had been two years earlier. Ms. Wilkerson's stealth slate won the election and set about keeping the promise to fire themselves.

It takes a 60 percent majority to disincorporate a city. On Tuesday, in a huge turnout, 73 percent of St. George's residents voted yes.

"Tax dollars are pretty scarce these days," she said. "If we want change in the federal government, we have to start here."

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