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The Heart of Government

Posted by on May 29, 2009

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

David Stokes and I just attended the weekly Board of Aldermen meeting for St. Louis city. It was actually quite enjoyable. For one thing, David’s extensive personal experience with local government made him a great resource and a wealth of information. He had a fast answer to every question I asked, and volunteered a great deal of information about the aldermen, as well as explaining some of the processes involved in moving a bill through the board’s approval process.

The board considered a number of bills today, and we heard the reading of a number of bills which would declare properties around town “blighted.” A couple of bills designated federal grant money for Lambert Airport, and a few dealt with approving financing for the Kiel Opera House.

At one point, when the proceedings had moved along rapidly for quite some time, Alderman Joe Vaccaro of the 23rd ward stood to move for approval of a rezoning bill he’d sponsored. For the first time in the meeting, roll was called for votes, and nearly every member in turn voted “no.” Every previous bill had passed without hesitation, and Stokes and I really wondered what was up. As soon as the votes were tallied, a revote was called and this time it passed unanimously. Suddenly, David understood and explained to me: This is a relatively new alderman, and they were playing a prank on him. We both found it pretty funny.

Much less funny was Resolution #50, calling on the Post-Dispatch to “reject the predatory practice of job outsourcing and keep St. Louis area jobs in St. Louis.” There was some discussion of the matter. Alderman Stephen Conway of the 8th ward in particular took the opportunity to admonish the hypocrisy of those who shout down outsourcing while driving foreign-made cars, and a third alderman who spoke on the matter agreed with these anti-outsourcing views.

During this discussion, the viewpoint I hold was completely unrepresented, although it is also largely the stance held by the economic profession as a whole. Outsourcing is only bad in the short term for the specific people laid off. But it also means that customers continue to get the things they were getting before (often for cheaper prices), and a mobile labor force allows both new and existing businesses to find potential employees more easily.

If you read only one critique of protectionism, let it be this.

There was also some heated discussion about a resolution “to convene hearings of the Public Safety Committee for the purpose of reviewing the conditions of the City jails in relation to the report of the ACLU-EM […]” At least one member of the Board of Aldermen has a personal distaste for the ACLU, and it showed — but ultimately the resolution passed.

Much of the time I spent there, I was struck with how civil and efficient the whole process appeared, and reminded of a blog post by Clovis Ouangraoua discussing how remarkable a peaceful government is. For any St. Louisan interested in seeing the process of local government in action, I honestly recommend visiting your Board of Aldermen for a meeting. The biggest praise I can give is that the whole affair was very efficient in terms of time, an attribute I chalk up largely to the guidance of Board President Lewis Reed, who wasted no time while officiating the proceedings.

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