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When it comes to municipal elections, St. Louis area residents think small is beautiful

In Beacon Blog

12:17 am on Fri, 03.29.13

Dear Beaconites --

Several years ago, our daughter-in-law set out for a run from our house in Kirkwood, took a wrong turn and soon found herself at a quiet intersection miles from home. When a car rolled to a stop, she asked for directions.

The concerned driver wondered whom she was visiting. "I've known them for years," he said when told and offered not only directions but a ride home. The Good Samaritan was Mike Swoboda, who cheerfully explained, "I'm the mayor. I know everybody."

That experience came to mind in recent weeks as we at the Beacon planned coverage leading up to next Tuesday's municipal elections. Many communities will be voting on mayors -- and city councils, school boards and other offices and issues too numerous to catalogue.

Many voters will be struggling to understand what's at stake. Separately, each race seems too obscure to focus on; collectively, they're overwhelming.

This municipal election will be a humble exercise in democracy, but it will eventually hit home with at least as much force as a national or statewide race -- affecting school quality, property values, neighborhood development and the day-to-day life of about 2 million of the region's Missouri residents. (Illinois residents get their turn April 9.)

When it comes to the welter of jurisdictions that subdivide our metro area, logic suggests that less might equal more -- definitely more prominence, probably more efficiency and possibly more accountability. Yet, with the exception of the St. Louis-St. Louis County reunification movement, there is little serious effort to consolidate. Small town loyalty runs strong, and for good reason.

Our municipal multitudes may lack scale, but they're rich in community connections. That's what our daughter-in-law discovered at that quiet intersection in Kirkwood. That's one important reason we enjoy living there. As Kirkwood's recent history has shown, connections don't necessarily ward off serious problems. But connections sustain the sense of civic pride and responsibility essential for finding solutions.

Rather than merge, our region's residents have learned to collaborate across boundaries for larger purposes. School, fire and police districts typically include several municipalities. The Zoo-Museum District pioneered cross-boundary support for cultural institutions, and the potential benefits of that collaboration remain obvious despite the recent controversy at the Missouri History Museum.

One grand collaborative proposal, Proposition P, is on the ballot Tuesday in St. Louis and St. Louis County. In recent weeks, the Beacon has reported extensively on the Arch tax, as it's commonly known. We've explored where the money would come from, where it would go and arguments for and against the idea.

In addition, Beacon political reporters Jo Mannies and Jason Rosenbaum have highlighted some key municipal races and issues. And previously, the Beacon reported on St. Louis contests, most of which were decided in the primary earlier this month.

But to be honest, no news organizations can cover all of Tuesday's contests at the level of detail voters deserve. Local publications such as the Webster-Kirkwood Times cover certain communities. The voters guide produced by the League of Women Voters and the Post-Dispatch provides some basic information about many candidates. And all that's helpful as far as it goes. But there's no substitute for thorough, thoughtful reporting on candidates. We wish we had the resources to do more.

To fill the gap, you'll no doubt turn to more personal sources of information -- to friends and neighbors you trust for advice about how to vote on Tuesday. You'll tap the connections that are so important to the character and quality of the region whose future will be determined by your vote.



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