The St. Louis County Executive is the most powerful elected official in this region, and possibly in the entire state if you leave aside the governor. Since 1951, when home rule was established and the modern St. Louis County government began, nine men have held the office as St. Louis County Executive. Five of the nine men were Democrats, while four of them were Republicans. Today, the office has more power than ever: The county’s population is approximately one million, and the executive represents hundreds of thousands of residents who live in areas other than incorporated cities or towns.
It was a long and complicated road that led to 1951 when Luman Matthews became the first Supervisor–as the County Executive then was known–and it began in the late 19th century. Although the Great Divorce is well-documented, it’s worth reiterating: Missouri was the first to adopt home rule in 1875. The City of St. Louis benefited almost immediately from the new form. It separated from St. Louis County in 1877. Although legal experts and lawyers have difficulty understanding “home rule,” it allows cities like St. Louis to take decisions on their own that the State of Missouri has traditionally made for them. Home rule is still subject to federal and state law, but the laws of the City will apply if there are no conflicts.
St. Louis County was left out of the home rule system. It had a population of around 30,000 and no county seats. Within its borders, the Old Courthouse was located in the city. The county did not have a locus of power. Several pre-existing cities could be used as county seats. However, Clayton was chosen due to the donation by a farmer for a centrally located new seat.
The original administrator of St. Louis County was the county judge known as the Presiding Justice. This office was dominated by the Republican Party until 1951. Luman Matthews was the first person elected to the office of Supervisor. He was a Republican who had served as the Presiding Judge between 1943 and 1950.
The rapid growth of St. Louis County, both before and after World War II, prompted residents to vote for a new county charter, which went into effect on January 1, 1951. There were concerns about centralized control, parks and police, fire protection, sewer system, and consistent revenue streams to fund all the new amenities. The County’s most important new power was given by the new charter: taxation. This is a home rule that can be used without permission from the state. This was also the time that a new seven-member council was created. The County government created a professional civil service system, which was distinct from traditional political machine hires. We are now experiencing fragmentation because of this failure. It was deeply saddening to read a 1950 PostDispatch article on the new County charter. The report stated that small hamlets, including Margona, which I have never heard of, had no economic capacity to sustain a sufficient economy to be financially solvent. These inefficient redundancies were not addressed by the new charter.
There were still hints of strong leadership. It’s fascinating to see old newspaper clippings that mention Luman Matthews while he was still a Presiding Judge. As is often the situation, the actions of the first person to assume a new position set the tone for the subsequent ones. One incident stands out for me: It concerns Delmar Boulevard’s proposed extension (the ending of this story is known to everyone who knows anything about the area roads). There were three possible directions for Delmar to be extended beyond North Price Road. Olivette or Ladue would be the ones receiving the extra traffic. Matthews’ Overland home was invaded by a caravan of Olivette residents, who poured onto his lawn and knocked on his doors. Matthews met the group and explained his position. Everyone left feeling satisfied, if not completely satisfied, at least that they had heard.
Matthews, who died in 1977 after a long and successful tenure as an officeholder, could point to several achievements that he had made during his term. In 1954, the Metropolitan Sewer District was established. The St. Louis County Police Department replaced the sheriff’s office in 1955. To this day, the County park and library system are the envy of metropolitan areas. Matthews may have had the advantage of a growing population and an expanding economy. Between 1950 and 1960, St. Louis County’s population grew from 406,349 people to 703,532. Growing up in St. Louis County during the 1980s and 1990s, I know this: Matthews’s successors were, regardless of political affiliation, known for their calm, steady hands, just like the first man to hold office.
This has changed in recent years. We’ll find out if Dr. Sam Page is elected to the office of County Executive.