Phil Eckelkamp

With more than 100,000 people, Franklin County is the only large county in the Saint Louis metropolitan area lacking a form of self-government. Last April, however, residents gave the green light to a constitutional charter draft for county government. The 14-person commission created for this task — equally split along partisan lines — did an admirable job. Although there are some drawbacks that need to be addressed, the charter draft as it stands would largely be a positive step forward.

To be clear, this new charter would not create a new level of government. Rather, it would simply switch one form of county government for a better one. As someone who was raised in Franklin County, I’ve seen firsthand how the community’s needs have changed over time. Population growth naturally entails additional challenges, and as we now face increasing taxes and declining economic growth, the people of Franklin County need a more direct voice in their government. The proposed charter would entail minimal cost in relation to its benefits. It would bring true representation to unincorporated areas, and it wouldn’t drastically expand the number of county offices. Despite the county’s current executive and commissioners, we are still largely governed by Missouri rules and regulations. Franklin County has grown to the point where it makes sense to become a self-governing entity with rules determined in the county seat — not the state capital.

The new format would add seven county council members, each with a $10,000 annual salary, replacing the two current associate commissioners who make $64,000 apiece. Essentially, the county would trade one commissioner for seven councilors, and although a seven-member council may seem like a high number, it would allow for population growth. The charter specifies that county council lines would be drawn according to population, which would allow for greater representation of the people, especially for those who don’t live in a municipality.

Counties have to strike a balance when deciding how many elected officials to have. Although the charter would wisely maintain a number of offices as elected positions, which is positive for good government, the proposed number does not create an overly cumbersome bureaucracy.

Aside from these positive aspects, one part of the charter is particularly disagreeable. While it does not worsen the county’s property rights situation, the charter commission missed a real opportunity to be a leader in the fight against eminent domain abuse. The proposed charter outlines at great length the situations in which officials might use eminent domain, when it should have simply said, “Franklin County will not take private property from one party to give to another private party for any reason.” The charter language contains elaborate posturing, to give the appearance of real eminent domain protection. As it stands, however, it would still give officials the opportunity to redistribute land between private parties simply by making capricious “blight” designations, if a majority of the council so votes. The county merely adopted the same weak standard that the state has already implemented.

There are a couple more potential problems. The charter would give officials the power to hire consultants or lobbyists, which could lead to undue influence and corruption during the lawmaking process. It would also give the council power to create laws for the “public health and welfare,” and allow them to make rules and regulations that are “necessary and proper.” These phrases are both standard constitutional language, but are still worrisome because they have been abused at both federal and state levels to expand the size and role of government in Americans’ daily lives. Franklin County won’t grow into the behemoth that the federal government has become, but it’s crucial for citizens to continue taking an active role in their communities and keep government unobtrusive and small. The direct and personal connection that comes along with such a small county council will help ensure that citizens respond to official wrongdoing.

Considered in total, though, the charter would establish more local control — the most important and effective form of government — which can bring protection and insulation from bad laws. The charter’s apportionment of a council member for each 14,285 people would also provide a focused and influential representative voice for the people, contrasted with the two current commissioners who must try to listen to and advocate for all 100,000. Franklin County has an active citizenry, with many people who would make great council members or county executives. The charter draft’s missed opportunities and troublesome aspects can always be amended, but the overall proposal would be largely a positive step forward.

Phil Eckelkamp is an intern at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank. He is currently pursuing a degree at Saint Louis University School of Law.

 

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Phil Eckelkamp