City Managers and County Seats: Differences Between Kansas City and Saint Louis Governments
Missouri’s two largest cities, and their related primary counties, have chosen substantially different systems of local government. The stark differences between Saint Louis and Kansas City stand out, even though it is common for larger cities within the same state to have different government structures.1 These differences among the governments of Kansas City and Jackson County, and Saint Louis City and the neighboring, but separate, Saint Louis County, are both obvious and subtle. In fact, the few similarities are rare enough to be notable by that reason (similarity) alone.
While I would not call it a structural similarity, there is one important trend that is consistent between all four localities. All four of these communities have enacted major checks on executive political power, albeit with different methods. The residents of these four areas do not live and work under the leadership of a powerful executive who runs the city, like the mayors of Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York.2 The people of the Kansas City and Saint Louis areas have instituted government systems with significant checks and balances on the power of any one politician or agency. The ways these checks operate differ substantially; except for Saint Louis and Jackson counties, which have some similarities.
The purpose of this essay is to explain the government systems in each city and county, from the important parts to those that might be nothing more than interesting trivia. We will consider the different choices the cities and counties have made in an effort to provide responsive local government, and it is not our goal to draw sweeping conclusions based on the comparison of just two metropolitan areas.
All four of the city and county governments considered here are “charter” governments under Missouri law. Both cities and both counties long ago reached the constitutional requirements to enact a “charter” form of government, essentially giving the four entities local control over the design and implementation of their own government. The original charters of the two cities date back to the 19th century, while Saint Louis County became the state’s first charter county in 1950 and Jackson County became the second in 1970. The voters of the four entities approved all of these charters. They all can be — and have been — amended at various times since their adoptions.
Throughout this essay, when terms like “weak mayor” or “strong county executive” are used, they are solely meant to be comments on the structural nature of the offices under discussion. They are not a judgment on the abilities of the officeholders, past or present. Numerous factors need to be considered when discussing whether a system is a “strong” or “weak” mayoral or county executive structure. Those factors include: who has the primary budget authority; whether there are many or few other elected, executive positions; the amount of council input into department director appointments; the existence of a city manager or administrator – and how that person is appointed; the council’s authority to introduce, amend, or filibuster legislation; and more.