Convoluted government brings us to our knees

The year was 2002.  Dave Adkisson, the then Birmingham Chamber of Commerce President, and I were in St. Louis jogging early one morning when we struck up a conversation with a local runner.

He asked where we were from and why we were visiting St. Louis.  We told him we were with a group of about 100 business leaders and politicians from Birmingham who had come to St. Louis to learn about his city’s successes.

His response was one of disbelief.  “Why in the world would anyone think there was anything good to learn about St. Louis?”

That was the first hint that there was a self-esteem problem in St. Louis.

Of course when we heard from other speakers over the next two days, we began to understand.

We heard how St. Louis in the early 20th century was the 4th largest city in the U.S.  However, when it lost a large Midwestern airport that was scheduled to be built in St. Louis to Chicago (O’Hare), it ultimately fell to 18th.

That story is similar to the Birmingham airport story.  Birmingham lost its big potential Southeastern airport to Atlanta.  Atlanta now has the busiest airport in the world.

During the next two days we heard about the competing government entities in the St. Louis area.  St. Louis is not in St. Louis County and each competes against the other.  The metro area is composed of six counties in Missouri, five counties in Illinois, and has to deal with two state governments. To make matters even worse there are 92 municipalities in St. Louis County.

This makes Birmingham’s 37 cities in Jefferson County look relatively simple.

But, in addition, our region has lack of home rule.  We have a state legislature who creates our problems and then won’t solve them.

No wonder St. Louis saw its population drop from 850,000 to 350,000 and Birmingham has seen its population fall from 340,000 to 210,000.

Local competing governments are not good for economic development nor are they good for building self-esteem.

Compare St. Louis and Birmingham to two other cities the Chamber visited—Nashville and Charlotte.  Both those cities have strong self-confidence and both are economic powerhouses.

Is it just a coincidence that Nashville and Charlotte have unified governments with common regional goals and St. Louis and Birmingham do not?

David Sher’s goal is to create a conversation on how to fix our fragmented and dysfunctional local government.

David Sher is a partner in Buzz12 Content Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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4 thoughts on “Convoluted government brings us to our knees”

  1.      My grandfather taught me that if you have a problem to solve involving people, you must either work
    with them, or work around them.  This certainly appears to be the case now with the government political
    make up and bureaucracy of the City of Birmingham.   First, one must realize the scope and influence of
    the city.
         Birmingham gets the attention, even tough its a small cog (230,000 people, or about 19% of Jefferson
    County) because of its constant political/financial “squeaking”.  Squeaking is necessary because of
    short-sighted governance and planning, etc.  Remember too, that the nine members of the City Council are
    elected 2% of the people of Birmingham.  How much “vision” and “leadership” does one need to satisfy 2%
    of ones constituents; much less for the city, county, and region, as a whole.  
    Lastly, I believe the competitive growth necessary for the economic and social longevity of Birmingham
    will not come directly from the city itself but indirectly from the human, business, and government
    leadership in counties and surrounding municipalities. 
    In order to bring Birmingham into modern times, I respectfully believe we need to leave the
    City of Birmingham to themselves.

    1. Tom, thanks for your thoughtful comments. But how realistic is it to assume our Birmingham region can be competitive without the heart of our city included? We are competing with “all” of Nashville, “all” of Charlotte, & “all” of Jacksonville. Birmingham politicians are acting exactly as they are supposed to act. They were elected by their constituency and their job is to please them so they are reelected. They have no responsibility or accountability to anyone outside the city limits. That’s the government we created and until we change that structure, that is the government we are going to get.

  2. It seems to me that we are good at articulating the problem, and I have no complaints about that,
    but we need to discuss specific solutions.  For example, and I admit I am naive about this, could it be
    that the core of the problem lies with our antiquated state consitution?  Could the rewriting of that
    document provide the impetus for a regional government like Charlotte and like Jacksonville?  So, I am 
    asking, because I do not know, what is the core problem in our fractured government?  If we can 
    find that then perhaps we can find our wayout.   

    1. John, There is no doubt that our state constitution is a big part of our problem and if we could gain “home rule” we would be well on our way.

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