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Who Represents Us?

June 19, 2007 Board of Aldermen, Education, Guest, Politics/Policy 13 Comments

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

With the recent changes at the School Board, I wanted to raise the following fundamental question – who do (or should) our politicians represent? Do they represent the people who nominated or appointed them, the people who funded their campaign, the people who voted for them and/or everyone in their district, ward, area or city? It seems like a simple question, but many times actions speak louder than words. And, having done time as both an appointed and an elected politician, I can vouch that it’s not an easy answer.

The “old”, elected School Board had one or more members with close ties to the teacher’s union. The old Board also had an appointed member who obviously split ways from the mayor (who appointed her). The “new”, appointed Board is being portrayed, negatively, as somehow more removed from the issues facing our schools. Is it better or worse? I don’t know, yet.

My own experience is that my actions and reactions changed as my constituency broadened and the role of the various organizations changed. In Denver, in the late ’80’s, I became active in a neighborhood organization, rising quickly to president. One issue facing us was a new light rail line. My personal, libertarian bent was that it would be highly subsidized and shouldn’t be built. The voters disagreed and it was built.

In the late ’90’s, a vacancy occurred on the transit district’s elected board. Denver’s mayor appointed me to fill the balance of the term. I changed my focus from a very-local, neighborhood perspective to a regional perspective. I made the commitment that my role was to make the system the best it could be and not to try and “destroy it from within” as some previous board members had attempted. I also tried to be responsive to constituent comments and concerns, especially individually-generated ones, and not so responsive to petitions and multiple, identical post cards and emails.

Which gets me back to both the St. Louis School Board and the Board of Aldermen. Who do they actually represent? Who “has their ear” and exerts the greatest influence in their decisions? Is it the Democratic “machine” and the ward committee people? The various unions and their political-action committees? The Mayor, Governor and President of the Board of Aldermen? Those parts of town that voted heavily for them (and not those parts that didn’t)? The major corporations and donors that funded their campaign? Every citizen who personally contacts them? Only those citizens that actually reside in “their” ward or live in the city? The politician’s own vision, education and close circle of friends?

I know, I know, everyone is different. That’s the beauty of “representative” government. But when the representative sample becomes too small and/or too closed, more and more people become disenfranchised and excluded from what should be a very public and inclusive process. And, yes, we can always get worked up and “throw the rascals out”, but that rarely happens, and even when it does, you still need to overcome institutional inertia. So two final questions – do the systems (and the people) we have now, work (well enough)? And if not, what should change and how should we get that change started?

Local architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.


Currently there are "13 comments" on this Article:

  1. downtown says:

    Voters rejected massive charter reform amendments which would have changed things, inluding eliminating the Board of E and A, and creating a more powerful executive in the Mayor’s office. St. Louisans hate change and love their alderman.

    [SLP – Voters rejected changes funded by the big boys of Civic Progress, designed to give the appearance of a grassroots movement.]

  2. public says:

    It takes money to carry out massive government reform. Who’s going to foot the bill? More important, who’s going to lead the process? Surely current elected officials won’t lead a process to change/limit their authority-witness the last go around.

    The process strictly limited the involvement of elected officials. As a result, they led the opposition to it. With charges of racism and defense of the status quo. Sounds like a perfectly staged and delivered St. Louis narrative.

    Discussing the sort of changes that would be appropriate for St. Louis would be an interesting (and already for years’ debated topic).

    More relevant is how would you get it done? The last go round was charged by the progressive community as phony civics. Those charges dovetailed nicely with the status quo defenders working to protect their turf.

    Race will always be an issue. Rather than saying Civic Progress was trying to run a grass roots process, what was more a challenge was achieving a satisfactory plan that survived the lens of racial politics. Any reduction in the number of elected officials was viewed a threat to advances made by African American elected officials and communities.

    St. Louis is not about plans and studies. It’s about action and vision. What vision and what actions would get us to a better form of government.

    As soon as the discussion gets to action, it falls apart. Solve that dilemma and we will crown you lord of the realm.

  3. john says:

    It’s difficult to make change when the elected leaders are emboldened by the status quo.
    Given the current situation, I do not believe change is possible until greater destruction is experienced. My questions for Jim:
    1. In the StL area, politicians often represent other politicians more than the public. Without going into a lengthy essay, not only does the StL area lead the nation (#2) in governmental units per citizen but also in the layers created to represent this vast array of entitites. We have MSD, EWGC, etc. appointed to represent the City, the County (with 91 separate units), other counties, the state of MO, and the state of IL with its various counties. The 91 counties also have a Municipal league to represent them. In the end we get only finger pointing instead of accountablity. In what ways does Denver differ in representative government?
    2. Do you believe it is possible to create consensus in an area with numerous conflicts of interest given the number of governmental units?
    3. Given the inability to make charter reform, has the City made enough change to insure success or is this just another dead cat bounce in a trend that has lasted for over four decades?
    4. If you were given a magic wand, what three things would you choose to change in the area to make elected leaders more accountable or the area more prosperous?
    5. Personally I have to admit that the structure of government here leads me to believe that no one represents me unless I’m willing to make a large campaign contribution (by the way, you are clearly under no obligation to respond). I still don’t know from your essay whether or not you feel represented, do you?

  4. GMichaud says:

    JZ, I have been around as long as you, and my general feeling about local government as well as state and national to varying degrees is that they truly don’t represent the people. It is a system where moneyed insiders pretty well get what they want. So we end up a built environment that reflects prejudices of big developers who own the system and build the government to their specifications.

    Some communities and states around the country work a little different, they are less corrupt. (Because all we are really talking about is a vast corruption). There are good people, that along with communities and states that are trying different solutions is the only thing saving democracy in America.

    Specifically St. Louis, there is a corporate/ political line of some type, in which the Post and electronic media pretty well stay in line with and which run things around town. I have had a picture in my mind over the years that no more than say a couple hundred people really run things, and I have often felt it is way fewer.

    For instance with the Highway 40 rebuilding, the original question for the public was which route to take, not whether the project should be built at all. Of course the East West Gateway Council passed on the highway. They should be the first to go. The East West Council should be elected citizens.

    In my view this is a marginal democracy, the worse part is the lack of effort to recreate a robust democracy. The political establishment in St. Louis works hard to keep citizens in the dark. The irony is if they knew how to mine the creative forces of the citizens they and all would be more wealthy and prosperous. Their personal greed does not allow this to happen.

    On the bright side, a have a feeling something is happening,
    I have ran into some diverse comments from around the country expressing the same thought. So perhaps change is finally going to occur. The truth is we are almost to the point of no return. Change is overdue.

    The first step is now. Communication.

  5. Bidet says:

    I find three things disturbing: lack of communication by public officials, public officials who think they are above you, and citizens who like to be puppets of public officials – the public officials circle of friends.

    I know that my public officials don’t represent me as theys should. You have a better chance of representation if you are your public officials’ BITCH. Yes, I said it – Bitch. Sorry for the rant but it’s tearing me apart…..

    GMichaud. I see the same picture you see -there is a select few who run this place we call St. Louis.

  6. Jim Zavist says:

    Thanks for everyone’s thoughtful comments . . . now some responses . . .

    public: It also takes a lot of money to maintain the status quo.

    john: 1. The number of entities is an issue, as is the hard line between the city and the county. Denver is a city & county like St. Louis, but since it’s in a different state, the laws are different. The big difference between here and there is that the mayor of Denver and the mayor of Aurora (largest suburban neighbor) are actually cooperating on economic development issues. Was there a law sasying they had to? No. It boiled down to common sense, a robust local economy and a realization that throwing out ever-increasing incentives was a losing proposition in the long run – basically, just good leadership. 2. It’s possible to create consensus, it boils down to leadership and “looking beyond the end of your nose”. 3. Again, it’s about the people, not the rules. Local tradition is apparently one of “just my ward” tinged with a healthy dose of racism. You can’t legislate either away and you can’t mandate cooperation, but you can elect people who “play nice together”. 4. a) make local economic development subsidies illegal, b) consolidate services even if you can’t consolidate governmental bodies (for example, we don’t need 50 or 60 local police “chiefs” to provide good police services) and c) try to change the focus toward Transit Oriented Development (which I’ll deal with separately). 5. I feel less represented here than in Denver, but it has less to do with money than with the political culture. After 20 years, I had developed a lot of political connections, and that doesn’t happen here or anywhere else after only two years. But, yes, a lot more stuff here seems to happen behind closed doors, so it seems like its more difficult to figure who the players are and how to connect with them.

    GMichaud: I’m a big believer in local government. The higher up the food chain one goes, the less direct impact any one individual can have (unless you carry a fat checkbook). My take is that the state government in most states is held captive by special and rural interests, and the less they “accomplish”, the better off we all are. And the federal congress, at this point in time, is totally inaccessible to any of us “normal” people – their time is totally consumed by fund raising millions for their next race and partisan posturing. So even though the local ward structure has some “unique attributes”, it’s the best we have and we need to work with and within it. Thge best we can hope for is to elect some people who are willing to focus more on the city as a whole and less on their individual wards.

    Bidet: I agree – communication can and should be improved. It needs to be a two-way street between the elected and their constituents. The third leg of the equation needs to be a willingness to hire good professionals to manage the delivery of services and then to let them do their damn job! There seems to be a local culture of micro-management that doesn’t seem to work well in the long run – there’s no reason for a revolving door for school superintendents (what 5 or 6 over 5 years?!) and there’s no point in hiring traffic engineers if you’re going to tell them where to put stop signs or what the speed limit should be. Reach a consensus on what the goal is, set policy, then empower staff to implement it (and don’t second-guess “bold moves”) – we need to change the current direction if we’re going to avoid repeating the same mistakes and worn solutions!

    Bottom line, while the system may be flawed (there is no perfect model) it boils down to effective leadership. Elect good people and encourage them to look at the big picture and come up with and implement some big ideas!

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    Blueprint Denver (http://www.denvergov.org/blueprint_denver) is the current comprehensive plan for Denver. Unlike St. Louis, Denver is growing rapidly. Like St. Louis, sprawl is perceived to be a major issue. And like St. Louis, NIMBY (not in my back yard) remains a major concern. Blueprint Denver focuses on the reality that growth is happening and we have two choices, we can get more dense or we can continue to sprawl out with the current low-density develoment model. It also addresses the NIMBY concerns by creating areas of stability and areas of change. Areas of stability are established residential areas that should be respected. Areas of change are along major commercial streets, along existing and new transit lines and especially at new transit stations (http://www.denvergov.org/MS/FactSheet/tabid/391250/Default.aspx). Transit-oriented development is viewed as both a win-win solution and a way to increase density with minimal impact on existing, stable neighborhoods. Like St. Louis, outside of downtown, most commercial streets are dominated by single-story commercial structures with surface parking lots. Transit works best when a lot of people are concentrated in a small area. By increasing density (building up, with residential on the upper floors) both at light rail stations and along major streets (where the most-frequent bus service is), you make transit more attractive (and the single-occupant vehicle less attractive) AND you protect the integrity of the established residential areas. Making a city more dense does NOT mean that every area needs to get equally more dense. Recreating Lindell Boulevard in the CWE along Grand, Kingshighway, Manchester and, yes, MLK & Natural Bridge is one sloution to addressing our local suburban sprawl. Replacing our “bombed out” areas with new single-family housing is another solution. Done together, combined with actually building more rail transit lines (instead of just planning to do so), would be an ideal scenario to reinvigorating our urban infrastructure and our local economy.

  8. campaign says:


    At the bottom of your reply, I think I found your conclusion: you’re not advocating any change. You recommend electing good people. The answer is to look in the mirror, and then support good candidates, or even run ourselves. I suspect many readers of this blog – not to mention the host himself – probably have a few thoughts about “electing good people” or running for public office.

    Case in point: Christian Saller came highly recommended as “good people”. He resigned his professional development position with the City to run for alderman and finished dead last.

  9. john says:

    Thanks for the response JZ (it’s more than I usually get from my elected representatives) but I don’t beleive that electing “good” people is sufficient to foster change here. I know of many good people who serve as elected and corporate leaders who are overwwhelmed by our outdated and poorly designed political system. The tendency to “go with the flow” also dominates public discourse and debate. Denver may be able to see the inevitable negative fallout of sprawl but most St. Louisans seem to love it… particularly their cars and the willingnes of leadership to provide places to park them (for free!). The StL attitude, in a political system that prevents open and honest debate, will only change when it is forced to by outside influences. Perhaps the one event that may lead to change this is when gas prices rise sufficiently to seriously damage the pocketbooks of the auto-dependent. Until then, concepts like “smart growth” and more livable communities are only dreams.

  10. Bidet says:

    “He resigned his professional development position with the City to run for alderman and finished dead last.”

    I was dissappointed when Saller didn’t get the votes I thought he would. I believe his “circle of friends” wasn’t as deep as the other candidates. The others had friends in high places.

    Since most lay people don’t have many people in high places, how are we going to successfully run for office and win? I want to run for alderman but knowing what I know about politics, my chance of winning against a long standing incumbent is a foolish idea.

    Let’s just hope for effective and forward thinking leadership.

  11. Jim Zavist says:

    I didn’t say it would be easy, and it’s sure going to take more than one or ten elections to change things . . .

  12. siteplan says:

    Had voters approved the charter reform package, we would have seen fast change. Big structural change. A strong mayor form of government. No three-headed E and A boarded. Voters roundly rejected those changes. And they keep electing insiders. The song remains the same.

  13. Katherine Wessling says:

    Well, I ran across this awfully late so I doubt anyone sees this, but my answer is that as a School Board member I am not a politician, I am a public servant elected to ensure that the children of this community have good public schools to attend. My duty is not to any adult faction of the community but rather to the children for whom I have been elected to advocate.


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