Reducing The Size Of The Saint Louis Board Of Aldermen
Most people are familiar with Einstein’s E=mc2. In government, there is another powerful theory, the “Law of 1/n,” which states that as the size of a legislative body grows, that body increases spending. The larger a council or assembly, the more it spends. With that in mind, let us discuss the current proposal to reduce the size of the Saint Louis City Board of Aldermen from 28 aldermen and wards to 14.
When I was an assistant at the Saint Louis County Council, I once received a call from a resident who had just moved to an unincorporated part of the county from Saint Louis City. He wanted a new street light installed by his house. I explained in detail the various ways he or his neighborhood association could contact AmerenUE and arrange to pay for and install a new street light. After I went on in detail for several minutes, he finally cut me off and said, “Look, I just want you [meaning my boss, the councilman] to install a street light in front of my house.” The caller then explained that he just moved from the city, and, there, if he wanted a street light, he just called his alderman and he got a street light. He could not understand a system where he or his neighbors might be expected to actually handle something like this on their own.
The current makeup of the city’s board is unusual for at least two reasons. With 28 members for 320,000 residents, it is far larger on a per-resident basis than almost any other major city’s legislative body. By comparison, Kansas City has just 13 councilmembers for approximately 460,000 people. Furthermore, Saint Louis board rules authorize the filibuster, which is rare for local government councils. The filibuster — or often just the threat of it — gives each member of the board of aldermen substantial individual authority. There are benefits to that, but allowing so many officials to make certain their constituents get their “fair share” is a recipe for the creation of political fiefdoms. The benefits of getting a “fair share” for your ward are concentrated, and the costs are widely distributed among many other officials and taxpayers. In simpler terms, “Give that guy a street light!”
The “Law of 1/n” is a widely held finding of public choice economic theory. As any legislature has more members, they will seek a larger share of the pie for their voters. Both total spending and pork-barrel spending increase as an inevitable part of that quest. Taxes increase to pay for that spending. The accounting firm KPMG just released a study that found Saint Louis has the second highest business tax burden of major American cities. Those street lights aren’t free, you know.
There are counterweights to this. Most notably, Missouri’s Hancock Amendment thankfully limits the ability of governments to grow and grow. But another counterweight is a smaller legislative body. In a smaller body, the politician’s constituent will both receive the new street light and pay for a larger share of it. The politician has to consider both benefits and costs.
What about citizen representation? Clearly, there is a symbiosis between having a large number of aldermen and residents asking their alderman to do many things. If an alderman represents a small area, he or she can try to do many things for that area. That may be great, but individuals likely could do some of those things themselves if not for the easy availability of the alderman. I am reminded of the Australians in the “Simpson’s” episode who decide they must speak to their prime minister about a certain issue, and then just run to the neighboring farmhouse to see him.
The current members of the board represent slightly more than 10,000 people each. In Saint Louis County, the councilmember for the sixth council district (South County), along with one assistant, serve the constituent needs of 140,000 unincorporated county residents. If one county councilmember and one assistant can service 140,000 constituents, I think the members of the city board of aldermen can handle 23,000. Unless, that is, they really want to give a new street light to everyone who asks for it. Perhaps the largest benefit to a smaller board of aldermen is that it will say “no” a little more often.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.