WHITE PAPER: Scenic Overlook: Beware The O’Hara Rule

By on March 17, 2019
Regionalism Drill Down White Paper #3

by David Rusk
Special to Construction Forum STL

Before plunging into more detailed analysis of the Better Together plan, let’s take a moment to gaze out over the totality of the entire proposal.   

Have you ever heard of The O’Hara Rule?

James G. O’Hara (1925-1989) was a Democratic Congressman from Michigan who became a power in the House Education and Labor Committee in the 1960’s and 1970’s. As conveyed to me in 1970 by Jim Harrison, his senior legislative aide, The O’Hara Rule defines a perfect length for proposed legislation – not less than 40 pages or more than 80 pages.

“If it’s less than 40 pages, there’s the danger that other members of Congress will actually read it and vote against it,” Harrison explained. “If more than 80 pages, they still won’t read it but will suspect that among all those words there must be something fishy and will vote against it anyway.”

I thought of The O’Hara Rule as I ground my way through reading the detailed constitutional amendment proposed to implement the Better Together plan to merge St. Louis City and St. Louis County.

It’s 15,307 words long per Microsoft Word’s word count utility. (We confirmed this count by downloading a PDF of the revised amendment from the Ballotpedia website and the redlined amendment from the KWMU website, performing OCR conversions and transferring them into Word. The two word count totals matched.) The portions of the Missouri Constitution that the amendment will replace total 1,909 words.

Better Together’s amendment is over twice as long as the entire US Constitution (7,591 words, including all 27 subsequent amendments)!

The Missouri Constitution that Better Together would amend – no model of brevity itself – contains 69,394 words according to the Council of State Governments. Thus, achieving Better Together’s proposed reorganization through constitutional amendment would add about 20 percent to the length of the state constitution.

Moreover, the proposed amendment goes into extraordinary detail.   What really caught my attention was its mandating the creation of four deputy mayors (for Community Engagement and Equity, Economic Development and Innovation, Public Health and Safety, and Community Development and Housing) by constitutional authority. Not only would a Metro Mayor be required to fill and oversee such offices but these offices could not be modified or abolished except by amending the amendment by statewide vote.   Even municipal charters elsewhere that establish specific executive branch offices (such as Nashville) can be a amended by vote of just of the local citizens.

By contrast, consider how the US Constitution sets up the executive branch of the federal government.    “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America (Article II, Section 1.1).” Period.

The US Constitution certainly implies that there will be sub-officers. “[The President] shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint … all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law; but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, … or in the heads of departments (Article II, Section 2.2).”

Also, “[The President] may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices (Article II, Section 2.1).”

But those are the only constitutional provisions regarding organization of the federal government’s civilian executive branch. They’ve worked for the last 230 years.

It’s not for me to judge the politics underlying the Better Together plan. That’s for St. Louis City and County residents – or, as Better Together proposes, all Missouri voters – to decide.

But, in assessing a similar proposal, the so-called “borough plan” of 1962, here’s what scholar William Cassella had to say:

“Unfortunately, there is a striking similarity between the underlying philosophy of the separation movement of the nineteenth century and the consolidation approach which presents the borough plan amendment today. Both are absolute solutions with the accompanying elaborate claims. It was a great divorce in 1875.  It would be a forced marriage in 1962.

“Neither considers the delicate understandings and subtle compromises which characterize a happy home or a successful political union…The borough plan amendment follows the state constitutional alternative of consolidation, using the bulldozer approach which knocks down the good of local government along with the bad. It does this with a finality and in detail unheard of in the constitution of any state.”        

Contrast that with Better Together’s own statement of principles (page 26):

“While the Task Force members … have endeavored to create new structures of government that would address as many of the needs of the day as possible, it is clear that the needs of citizens change over time.   Moreover, it is unlikely that all needed reforms could be captured in a single effort.   All regions the Task Force researched continued to make changes to their government after the initial consolidation effort, underscoring the necessity of a structure conducive to further reform. A nimble and responsive government can enact policies that citizens ask for and address evolving issues that face the community.”

It seems to me that, with its proposed 15,307-word constitutional amendment, the Better Together plan violates both The O’Hara Rule and its own above standard.

Previous David Rusk Regionalism Drill Down White Papers in This Series

#1 St Louis City and St Louis County – The Fake Region

#2  The Incredible, Shrinking “Metropolitan City of St. Louis”


David Rusk is a former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico legislator, and federal official who has consulted on regional issues in over 130 metropolitan areas in the USA as well as in Canada, Germany, England, South Africa and The Netherlands.    He is author of Cities without Suburbs (4th edition 2012), called “the bible of the regionalism movement,” and three other books.

Mr. Rusk began analyzing the Better Together report for ConstructForSTL as soon as it was issued. In this series of white papers he will be drilling down into items ranging from savings from consolidation, to size and ranking of the “statistical city”, economic development, planning and zoning, bond ratings, taxation, political representation, and Metropolitan Council composition

About Tom Finan


  1. Theodore Robert Jacobs

    03/19/2019 at 11:27 AM

    Awesome, Keep up the good work.

  2. Mike H.

    03/22/2019 at 12:20 PM

    These are great – keep them coming. Since BT knows what’s best for us, maybe they should name the new metro city. Possibly sell the naming rights to the highest bidder. Think of the possibilities. . .