The 2023 Ferguson Mayoral Forum was hosted by the Ferguson Municipal Public Library and moderated by the Lisa Collier of the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan political organization. The forum recording can be found at this link.
Questions were submitted in advance from the public. A total of twenty questions were selected, with each candidate having one minute to respond. Opening and closing statements of two minutes each were also made.
Ella Jones: Was elected as mayor in 2020 “to lead this city and especially through the pandemic.” She served prior to that on council for five years and was council rep for the traffic commission, Senior Citizen Commission, Landmarks, and the West Florissant Business District. She and her family have lived here 45 years. She resigned her position as Mary Kay Sales Director to serve her community full time.
“Ferguson is a place that I want all of us to have a good place to live, work, and play. I have the mindset and the heart and character to do this work and continue the work that I started in the first three years of me being the mayor. Ferguson is in a place right now that we need to come and continue to work together in order to get full compliance on the consent decree. Ferguson is a good place for everyone to retire, raise their children.”
Nick Kasoff: “The city of Ferguson is in a crisis. Our streets are crumbling and characterized by reckless driving that goes unpunished. We go to sleep with the lullaby of gunfire and too many of our residents feel unsafe in their own homes. We have turnover at city hall that rivals a fast food restaurant. And because it lacks leadership, our council veers between nonproductive and chaotic.”
After the unrest, he saw that police cameras could have prevented catastrophe and led a team to bring a charter amendment to a public vote, which was passed by more than 70%. When the Ferguson Times print newspaper ceased, he started the online Ferguson Observer, which has focused on city hall and has exposed a few scandals. Last fall, when one member of council went rogue against the city manager he worked to recall her from office. Voters approved that recall with more than 70% in favor. He has also served as traffic commission chair, working on solutions to deadly problems.
- How do you feel about forming partnerships with County on issues like traffic, policing and street repair.”
Jones: “We are always forming partnerships on a council.” Jones stated partnership is working together as team, there will be disagreement, but partnership with every member on council is important.
Kasoff: Asked the moderator to clarify that the question was partnerships with County, not Council. Collier confirmed the question concerned partnerships with County.
Kasoff noted that certain things are within County’s “wheelhouse,” such as Chambers is a County road and unincorporated areas around us are policed by County Police. Ferguson has a responsibility towards things that we own. But we need to reach out and partner with County. “I look forward to our new police chief starting because I think we’re gonna see some partnerships with County that are helpful to us, particularly as we remain understaffed in our police department.” Yet, our autonomy as a city is also important.
2) In 2014, the I Love Ferguson nonprofit was created to help businesses in Ferguson. It raised and donated over $100,000. What role or thoughts do you have of the organization?
Kasoff: At that time, I Love Ferguson was controversial. We were a divided city and remain so today. “I am somebody who has been on both sides of the divide here in Ferguson. I was aware of what was going on in 2014, and I worked on some things that some of my friends on one side were not very pleased about. But the fact of the matter is we live in a famous city. We are always on the path to justice here.” He seeks to push to get the consent decree done, “And that will be the ultimate thing to do for loving Ferguson.”
Jones: Explained that I Love Ferguson was formed by Brian Fletcher and other citizens to get funds and “Help the businesses that needed extra training. Probably setting up their plan for action. I love the I Love Ferguson, simply because when we had a study by Peter Bellmio, his thing was to make certain something happened every year for the Michael Brown unrest. And we started, I am the first chairperson of the Unity Weekend. And the first donation for the Unity Weekend came from Brian Fletcher and I Love Ferguson. So today we’re committed to work on relationships for the whole city and not just certain groups.”
- Do you believe the current policies and procedures and police in Ferguson are adequate to address crime that has rapidly increased over the last several years?
Jones: We continue to hire qualified officers, “At one point the numbers have been down and the police chief at the time, Chief McCall …work intelligently to get our numbers up so we can have a traffic team.” Jones expects the new chief will move quickly. At the end of Jones’ comments, “It’s always great to have a relationship with Executive Sam Page and Councilwoman Rita Heard Days.”
Kasoff: “I think it’s really funny to suggest that Chief McCall was working diligently. The people of this community would say that Chief McCall was a failure and that under him the department atrophied and crime steadily increased in our community. To the extent that there’s people who don’t feel safe living here anymore.” He has confidence that the new Chief will be better. “Hopefully we’ll develop some policies and procedures to move this city forward so that people stop moving away because they feel they’re in danger. So right now, no, they are not adequate at all.”
- Many events that the citizens of Ferguson enjoy used to be organized by citizens. They have now transitioned to city sponsored events causing an increase in demand on the already strapped budget. What do you propose to increase citizen participation?
Kasoff: Believes it a shame that involvement has dropped. The 4th of July parade used to be crowded with spectators, now it is sparse. There has been a change in the level of civic involvement, “It didn’t start when Mayor Jones took office three years ago, but it hasn’t gotten any better since she did. I plan to be a cheerleader for everybody in the city, and inclusive of everybody in the city to get that participation level back up again.”
Jones: “Citizen participation is number one, simply because we do have various events.” Jones cited community gardens, the Juneteenth Celebration, concerts at Plaza 501, and the Ferguson Run. “So the more we invite citizens in to participate in various organizations, the citizens are really going to continue to work and do things.”
- Would you support a policy to prevent elected officials, past and present, from buying property from the city of Ferguson that were abated or demolished?
Jones: Noted this recently came to Council and the City Attorney explained that this person can get the property because they are not buying the property. “This is a rare case, and I’m in agreement with it simply because this is going to help stabilize this neighborhood,” she went on, “this is one of the best things that we could have done. No money has been exchanged.”
Kasoff: “There are some members of our council who have voted against this in the past and it the ‘Get Mike Palmer group.’ Let’s be very clear, there are people who are mad that Mike Palmer’s on City Council and they vote against anything he wants to do. The unfortunate reality for that faction is that Mike Palmer is one of the few people who’s willing to rehab these houses. He’s getting the houses that I wouldn’t take for free.” Ultimately, Kasoff stated, we need the properties restored to the tax rolls. “Let’s get more people involved in that Property Restoration Program. Let’s put it out there more broadly and get more participants, and maybe we can get all these derelict houses taken care of.”
- What are you going to do about the bad streets?
Kasoff: Explained that recently a trash truck fell through the pavement on Royal Ave. There was a big hole underneath. Kasoff called the water department because there had been a leak there. They contacted the sewer district. It was a collapsed sewer line, and they came out and fixed it. “There’s a lot of opportunities in our city where it’s not the city’s fault and we can get these things fixed at no cost. But there’s nobody at City Hall that’s doing it. So the first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to get these other entities that are responsible for damaging our streets to step up, and then we’ll move on to other problems.”
Jones: Stated that Public Works is “working as diligently as they can to patch the streets. Some of the streets are too far gone. We have a rating system for the streets. If a street is rated to the point where you can’t patch it, then we have funding set aside in the budget to improve and repair streets.” For a long term view, Jones believes we need to look at a Bond issue because our Moody rating has increased and “we could get enough funding to repair streets where it will take us about three years once we get this funding, but continue to patch the streets.”
- Would you support an audit of the city by the Missouri State Auditor? Why or why not?
Jones: Stated she would support an audit and noted that some citizens question the spending of Prop A money and the Economic Development Sales Tax money has not been spent properly. “And hopefully that we will have an audit that will go back five years. That would not only include my three years, but two years of the previous mayor. So if we don’t have anything to hide, then a state audit will be welcome.”
Kasoff: A couple of years ago, Kasoff was involved in a petition effort for a state audit that failed to get any support from any of the elected officials of the city. They came up short of signatures for the petition. “It just so happens that the governing body of a municipality can also pass a bill and request the state audit. So if I’m Mayor, on day one, I’ll introduce that bill to ask the state auditor to come in. That could have happened at any time in the past if anybody on council had done it.”
- What steps are needed to conclude the DOJ Consent Decree. What would you do to move us forward towards a suitable closure of the agreement.
Kasoff: Kasoff wants a systematic approach, beginning with using a spreadsheet with all of the steps needed for completion. “It just so happens that the DOJ made one seven years ago. Problem is nobody’s updated it in the past seven years. So I’ve already sent an email to the DOJ asking if they can update that on a regular basis.” Kasoff wants monthly reports to council on progress towards the decree. “Look, I’m not gonna go into a consent decree meeting and make comments insinuating there’s sexual harassment going on in city government. I’m going to take a serious, systematic approach, an we’re going to get that consent decree done hopefully within a year after I take office. But that depends on cooperation from other people in the city.”
Jones: “The court is two-thirds complete with their work on the consent decree. And that was looking at the cases and dismissing, we had almost 4,000 cases,” Jones stated, “Our police department are working on their policies. They have completed the stop and search policy.” She stated that we must hire a trainer for the Police Department and also hire a Community Engagement person to work with the Consent Decree Coordinator. She believes we can finish in the next couple of years.
- What are the steps needed to reform our code inspection process as it relates to apartment complexes to avoid the calamities like the Versailles apartments, and what would you do to make this happen?
Jones: “First of all, we have absentee landlords, and then we have some of these absentee landlords from out of the area give their money to candidates to make certain that they will announce [oust?] the new mayor, the new mayor and some city employees. [Jones shakes head, rephrases.] When you look at code, the number one thing that our code needs to be they need to be certified, our code officers.” At Versailles the code department reached out and tried to work with the landlord. She said that we have taken the code department and put them back with public works where they have a good director instructing them as code.
Kasoff: “Let’s be clear, we have a new Public Works Director because the Ferguson Observer caught the old Public Works Director signing off on fraudulent invoices, and you can check our website on that.” Code enforcement at apartment complexes has not been done right for years, with code enforcement only going in when there is a severe problem. “That’s how you end up in situations like Versailles, those people didn’t have hot water for a year and they just now fixed it. And we have similar problems and some of the other apartment complexes, one apartment complex owner called me because they wanted to put in speed bumps and no one at City Hall would answer their call. So yes, apartment complex owners are supporting me and here’s why—we’re going to have an open line to City Hall and we’re going to respond to these apartment complexes where hundreds of families live and that have such a big impact on the quality of life in Ferguson. We’re going to be proactive and we’re going to answer the phone when they call. That’s not happening today.”
- There’s been a lot of talk in this election cycle of “moving forward.” Please explain how you define this phrase as it relates to Ferguson, and what actions would you take as Mayor to move us forward.
Kasoff: “You’re asking me about the Mayor’s campaign slogan. So, you know, my feeling is that we haven’t been moving forward for a while.” Kasoff continued, “We all live in the same city and we rise and fall together. We have to pay attention to the quality of living in the poor neighborhoods. So if you live on Plaza and Mueller, the city has ignored those people.” He continued, “We’re going to focus attention on the apartment complexes and some of these more modest neighborhoods, because I believe the city is only as good as the worst neighborhood in the city.”
Jones: Jones believes “Moving Forward” is about working with people and listening to the people. “When we went to Ward Three and started working over in Ward Three, we realized that it was being underserved and the children didn’t have a decent place to play. So I’ve worked with various nonprofits, unions, and got together and raised $175,000 to build a park in the undeserved [sic] area.” Jones continued, “We’ve got to treat everybody the same. And the quality of life that is deemed for Ward One and Two should be deemed for the people in Ward Three. But it’s only gonna get better when you roll up your sleeves and you go into these underserved neighborhoods and work with the people and help them find better employment.”
- Our recent improvements projects in town, like new parks, are the result of various grants. Grants generally provide seed money to get projects going but do not provide funding for ongoing maintenance, or personnel salaries, support for additional staff requirements. We seem to be too dependent on grants and not enough on strategies that will provide for both capital improvement and will support sustainability on the money spent. How can we change our thinking and be less dependent on grants?
Jones: “Grants are good, they come in and enhance the ability of the city.” Grants for the streets like STP grants require a 20% match, these grants improve the streets. There are also Community Development Block Grants for low-moderate income areas. ”The General Fund can only take in the amount of taxes that we are allowed to take in. Grants are there to subsidize. We don’t depend on grants, but grants are used. They help us keep the city moving, keep the infrastructure from crumbling as much as it has been in the past.”
Kasoff: “First of all, we’re missing a lot of grant opportunities.” About four months ago, Kasoff recounted he was at a meeting with the former Public Works Director and some grant specialists. The specialists were pointing out grants the city could use for street improvement and the Public Works Director wasn’t familiar with them. So we could improve working on getting grant money. However, “Just because free money drops out of the sky doesn’t mean we can continue to maintain what we bought with that free money. I would say, you know, we had a park open now. A half a block from that park we have another park and we don’t have enough resources to maintain either one of them. There’s graffiti all over the new park already. The construction sign hasn’t been taken down and it’s been months since they were done building and now we’ve got two parks instead of one.”
- What is your plan to address public safety issues in Ferguson?
Kasoff: We have two safety issues: traffic and violent crime. Kasoff is thankful we have a new police chief. “The people who live here that see cars going 80 mph down their street and hear gunfire every night weren’t so crazy” about the former chief of police. “I always heard from him and from some of our elected officials, ‘Oh, we can’t do that because of the Consent Decree.’ The Consent Decree doesn’t say it, the DOJ doesn’t say it, and it’s just not an excuse for not doing your job.”
Jones: “My number one plan has already been in place and that we hired a new police chief.” “We are coming together to work collectively because of high crime and the kids stealing cars. So we are working collectively to combat that problem of the kids stealing cars. As far as the gunshots, we have ShotSpotters in place and officers are able to go when the ShotSpotters has pinged in that particular area to find out about the shell casing and the possibility of where that shots coming from.” Jones also said that people are responsible for locking their cars, not leaving cars running, and for calling the police non-emergency number when they see something wrong.
- How will you address the problems encountered by residents in some of the apartment complexes?
Jones: In January 2022 there were 100 people faced with eviction and Jones worked with Washington University mediators at the Urban League and with nonprofits. “I will not stand to allow any apartment manager to evict women and children.” She continued, “These people were living in subhuman conditions. Bring in the mediator and they had a chance to tell the mediator what was going on their property and the property manager had to come in and fix the problem.”
Kasoff: Identified two issues here: public safety and code enforcement. “Chief McCall, who was supported by certain people on council right up till he left, was approached by one of the major apartment complexes who was willing to give a free apartment, furnish it, provide food and a computer if we would just put a police substation in the apartment complex. Chief McCall laughed at them and it never happened.” The offer still stands if the city will accept it. For code enforcement, “We need to be looking at these apartment complexes every time we do an inspection and we need to go through there every week and make sure that the obvious externally visible things are taken care of.” On the issue of paying rent and eviction, Kasoff noted there is legal due process and state laws, it is a legal process you can’t simply stop.
- If elected mayor, what will you do to stimulate social and economic development in the Ferguson community?
Kasoff: “The first thing I would have done to stimulate economic development in our community would be to get rid of the number one barrier to economic development, but thankfully he resigned so that’s not going to be an issue anymore.” We need to finish work on Florissant Rd. and also take advantage of the opportunities coming to West Florissant with the streetscape work. Hiring an excellent economic development directory is a top priority.
Jones: Focused her comment on the work on West Florissant, saying “I worked closely with regional partners to get that $18.2 million to come to stimulate the West Florissant corridor. And by doing that we’re going to bring in new commercial development. It’s going to be a safer street.” She continued, “It’s going to slow the traffic down, bring in developers, start new lives.”
- How important do you feel boards and commissions are in creating opportunities for involvement and input into city governance?
Jones: “I believe that boards and commissions are the lifeline to the government. The boards and commissions are there to help send messages or make proposals to the council.” “The boards and commissions were one of the number one things I worked on when I came on council. It’s very important that we be out in the community.”
Kasoff: “The Civilian Review Board went six months having to repeatedly cancel their meetings because they didn’t have a quorum because nobody on council went out and got new members for it. I went out and got new members for it. The city took so long to approve those applications that one of the people changed their mind before she was ever approved.” Kasoff commits to filling the boards with qualified residents, “who live in the city and pay their taxes. Our boards and commissions will comply with Sunshine Law because we know some of them weren’t. And Council is going to start listening to boards and commissions during council meetings, because that doesn’t happen either.
- Just how important are neighborhood associations in Ferguson, and do you attend them?
Kasoff: Neighborhood associations are important, but many have fallen on the wayside. Some get good turnout, but “I’ve been to a couple of other neighborhood associations where the only person there was the council rep and me. We obviously need to revamp the neighborhood associations and get people interested in them. Because they’re kind of the glue that sticks our community together.”
Jones: Jones attends regularly and notes that many went online or in hybrid format the last couple of years. “They are heartened because the neighbors have an opportunity to talk to the council rep and in addition to that the police department comes out and gives a report.” “My goal is that the neighborhood associations that are meeting continue to meet and the ones who are not meeting can do something more hybrid.”
- How should ARPA funds be allocated?
Jones: “What I sent into the city manager is that each resident will get at least $1000 to do home improvement. In addition to that we have a part of Nesbit-Newton Park needed some additional playground equipment. In addition to that working with non-profits, such as the Metro Market Bus who comes in the summertime to have fresh fruits and vegetables to our citizens in an underserved area. So $4 million is still being talked about but we have not quite allocated as of yet.”
Kasoff: Noted that we have a program for $1000 for home improvements already, and have sent out a mailer to all residents because there were few applications. “There’s two things we need to be careful about. One of them is we have to comply with federal law which restricts how you can use those funds. But the other thing is let’s not use them in a way that creates additional costs down the road. The council has floated an idea at one point of spending half a million dollars putting new streetlights in. We got to pay the monthly bill on those streetlights if we do that.”
- With Emerson Electric considering moving to a new location in St. Louis, what steps do you think the city of Ferguson should take to encourage them to stay at their current location?
Kasoff: Noted that Emerson has sold the campus and has a three-year lease now. What we need to look at is the future of the Emerson site. The issue is that corporate campuses “aren’t a thing anymore.” Kasoff noted that Monsanto sold off half of their campus in Creve Coeur for residential development. “We need some smart economic development people in the city who can come up with some viable alternatives for how that land is going to be used down the road.”
Jones: Explained that she, along with the city manager, met with Emerson when made the announcement to leave. “In addition to that, we are working with the St. Louis partnership as they work with other nonprofits to look at the Amazon campus and see what will be the best way to have that campus be alive.”
- How can we hold absentee landlords accountable?
Jones: “I think the best way to hold absentee landlords accountable is to make certain that the policies that we placed for absentee landlords are enforced. And if absentee landlords don’t meet all the criteria about the property, then they should not be getting licensed.” Jones also noted there are local landlords who are also problems. ‘However, if we can move those abandoned houses and these vacant houses back on the tax roll as occupied owner, we will not have as many problems as we’d been having in the past.”
Kasoff: “I don’t care if it’s an absentee landlord, a local landlord, or an owner-occupied house. I care that they’re cutting their grass, not parking junk cars in their yard, not selling drugs. Ferguson has ordinances and Ferguson has code inspectors to enforce them. We just don’t do it. We have a responsible landlord ordinance and it’s supposed to put that tenant out or not renew their lease.”
- In a diverse community what would you do to reduce tensions?
Kasoff: “You know back in 2014 we were the focus of the entire world and then we turned into a hashtag. And now all of that’s gone, and we have to learn how to live together. When you talk to your neighbors and your friends, who may be of a different race, we’re all pretty much the same. We all go to work every day. We want to live in safe neighborhoods and have well maintained streets and honest city government. All this racial conflict that you hear about, it happens in politics and it happens in some of our city council meetings. But you know, we’ve got black and white people living on my street and we all love each other as neighbors. That’s where it all begins. And you spread out over an entire community, respect and love one another. I believe we can do it here in Ferguson.
Jones: “The best way I’ve found to reduce tension is invite people from various neighborhoods to come together. We had an event at the First Baptist Church, and it was a Family Fun Day, and they did talk about the tensions. And what was produced from that is that at least once a quarter, they are going to come together to talk about how they can improve and make this a better place.” “So in this diverse community, there are various ways to resolve tension, and the main way is coming together as one.”
Kasoff: “It’s encouraging to be running for office where so many residents have a strong interest in the future of our community. The residents of this community are the customers of city hall and as mayor, I’ll work to ensure that we get the service we deserve. I’ll support a new city manager who shares a vision for service efficiency and transparency. I’ll work with our new police chief to step up enforcement against reckless drivers who terrorize our streets. I will ensure that the city has great economic development staff so that we can finish the job on Florissant Rd. and seize the opportunity created by the redevelopment of West Florissant. I’ll work for consensus and respect on city council so that every interested resident is treated fairly. And most important of all, work for quality of life for every resident and neighborhood. Whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, living in a big mansion or two bedrooms on a slab. We all want the same things from out city. We want streets and parks that are well maintained, city offices that serve us well. We want to hear crickets when we go to bed, not gunfire. We want to feel secure in our homes. And we want honest representatives that serve our city for the greater good, not their own personal interests. We need better leadership for a better Ferguson. And with your vote for Kasoff for Mayor, we’re going to have that in just a couple of weeks.”
Jones: As Mayor, I have worked diligently to establish relationships, inter-governmental relationships with local and state and on the federal level to bring resources to Ferguson. Number one, our public safety is important, having a new police chief, working with the police chief to improve what’s going on. The RAISE grant that I worked with to bring to make a difference in the West Florissant corridor, social, economic, working with various nonprofits, and more importantly, going up to the Capitol, going to the certificate of need test committee to testify so Arbor Hills can get their license to open up a skilled nursing home to provide jobs. In addition to that, the well-being of our people. The flood we had back in July, it devastated a lot of people. I worked regionally with FEMA to come into Ferguson and open a disaster relief center at the Empowerment Center, so our people wouldn’t have to travel. For people who suffered, needed food and clothes, worked with the Food Bank to bring food here for our people, More importantly, I am a proven, experienced, leader and I am the best person for the job. When you go to vote on April 4th, vote to re-elect the Mayor, Ella Jones, so we could continue to move Ferguson forward and work with the various nonprofits to help our people, to vote forward and complete this consent decree. Vote Ella Jones on the ballot.