Districts as Gatekeepers

Are City Councils A Relic of The Past?
– from GOVERNING,
http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/Are-City-Councils-Relic-Past.html

by Rob Gurwitt | April 1, 2003

You notice two things right off about the 19th Ward in St. Louis. The first is that pretty much everywhere there’s construction, there’s also a large sign reading, “Assistance for the project provided by Michael McMillan, Alderman.” The second is just how limited Alderman McMillan’s domain happens to be. Walk a few minutes in any direction, and you’re out of his ward. You don’t see the signs anymore. You also don’t see as much construction.

Within the friendly confines of the 19th, St. Louis looks like a city busily reviving. There are new high schools being built, scattered apartments and loft projects underway, efforts to rejuvenate the historic arts and entertainment district, and a HOPE VI retrofit of an enormous public housing facility. While all this activity has some powerful people behind it, just one person has had a hand in all of it, and that is McMillan himself. Only 31, he has been on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen for six years, and in that time has made it clear that his ambitions for his ward–and by extension, himself–are high. “I don’t have other obligations,” he says. “I’m not married, I have no kids, I have no other job. It’s one of my competitive edges.”

Cross the ward boundary, and you find out what “competitive edge” means in St. Louis politics. North of the 19th, and for some distance to the east, stretch a series of neglected, depopulated neighborhoods that do not in any way suggest urban revival. This is, in part, a consequence of private market decisions: These neighborhoods don’t have much clout within the corporate suites where such decisions are made. But equally important, they don’t have much clout in local government, either–at least not when it comes to large-scale development projects.

That’s because in St. Louis, each of the 28 ward aldermen is the gatekeeper of development in his or her little slice of the city. If they’re shrewd and well connected, like Michael McMillan, the ward does fine. If they’re inattentive, or maladroit at cutting deals, or on the outs with local developers, or just plain picky, which is the case in more than a few wards, hardly anything gets done. “You don’t see a Mike McMillan coming out of some of these devastated wards,” says one City Hall insider. “They have a voice, but if it’s weak, what do they really get?”…

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