Council Meeting Summary, May 24, 2022

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For those attempting to see the Tuesday Ferguson City Council meeting this Tuesday there were two streams that were live: The Ferguson Observer’s Nick Kasoff streamed in person, but has multiple videos due to poor data signal onsite and continued problems with audio. The Observer has rectified the data problem, and expects to provide a solid stream at the next meeting. The city’s livestream from their website had no microphone for the Zoom audio of council member Linda Lipka and City Attorney Apollo Carey. Additionally, some speakers weren’t speaking well into the microphone (especially City Clerk Octavia Pittman), or there was additional noise interfering with the audio. The city did not make the Zoom information publicly available although it was used for the meeting.

These problems led to a summary which covers only what was accessibly audible online. [In a further note, video that is recorded by the city is placed on a YouTube channel Ferguson MO Govt TV on a schedule of the City Clerk’s, choosing, often taking weeks to post. The city, according to Clerk Pittman, does not bother to record budget meetings, so those are only now accessible if attended in person. The first May meeting has no recorded video from the city at all. On Tuesday, the council did vote for hybrid Zoom and in-person meetings for the next council meeting, but this apparently only applies to regular meetings and not to the remaining budget meeting(s) or any special meetings.

A brief summary of Tuesday’s meeting, to the extent available from the city’s website streaming follows, with inaudible comments of Linda Lipka and Apollo Carey unable to be noted.

Jeannie Boettcher spoke on behalf of the Ferguson Historical Society. The city is supposed to be responsible for the maintenance of the two cabooses, especially for maintenance of their exteriors. Traditionally, the Historical Society has furnished artifacts for the inside the cabooses and held open houses for the public to tour the cabooses. However, they have been plagued by vandalism, have become the site of a homeless camp, and have leaks in the roofs. All artifacts have been removed for their safety. Last month they sent a letter to Mr. Osterberg along with an estimate for replacement of the roofs of the cabooses, but have had no response yet. There was also an issue of mold in the basement at the History House building which Public Works did respond quickly to, and their staff was complimented for that rapid response.

Nick Kasoff spoke on the council’s need to enhance transparency and public involvement in the city council meetings. He noted that the St. Louis County Council has an agenda center which, in addition to the agenda, posts the council members’ full packet of information with PDF  files for the documents that support the work of the meeting. For example, in tonight’s meeting there are resolutions for contracts and a bill for first reading. All information about these are public, but the supporting documents are only available if requested under the Sunshine Law. But a request made after the agenda is posted would not be completed prior to the council meeting. This practice leaves the public with no opportunity to see the information that the council is considering. Kasoff urged the council to improve transparency by providing supporting documentation at the same time the agenda is posted.

Adrian Shropshire made comments about HR and whether it was in-house or not, and that we are working on getting a finance director. He said he would like more transparency on where we are in what requirements of the consent decree have been met, perhaps maybe the city could give a report every quarter. He said he tried to get into the website and find the agenda, but it’s tough to find. He also thinks financial reports should be easily available, it was easily found in the past. But he does want to thank the council for working together on senior housing.

A resident of Elizabeth for over 30 years spoke on how traffic has deteriorated. She would like to know what the police are doing and what plans are. Earlier this day, she left Paul’s Market heading south to return home and signaled to turn left. She wasn’t going fast enough for the driver behind her, and they passed on her left as she was trying to make her turn into her driveway. She was upset because someone could have been killed because of the illegal passing. She called the police department and then had trouble with the attitude of the dispatcher. She pleaded for something to be done about traffic violations and noted how several tragedies have already occurred.

Terry Foushee, a member of the traffic commission, provided information on a speed data gathering device to the council. He noted that their job is hindered by lack of data when they get complaints about crazy drivers. He spoke about Jamar Technologies, which makes a device which is being used by other police departments, including in Jefferson County. This tracks speed and volume data. He feels this would give “the biggest bang for our buck.”

A woman spoke saying she has been observing traffic in other places, including other parts of St. Louis, but also Chicago and Peoria, and notes that they do not have the abundance of vehicles on the streets without current license plates that we commonly have. She feels there is “tiptoeing around” the consent decree though it is not a valid reason to not enforce traffic laws. She asked how any laws will be taken seriously when bad drivers can act without penalty. She understands the police department is understaffed, but sees that as a separate issue.

Gerry Noll spoke saying that the Citizens Review Board (CRB) is on the agenda, but asked to push that out to the meeting of June 14th. This is because when they requested to present, they understood they would be able to do so by Zoom and this meeting wasn’t using it. Noll again noted that the CRB will need new members this July to replace vacating positions for Ward One, Ward Three, plus an at-large member.

Alan Mueller spoke on behalf of PROUD (People Reaching Out Reaching Out for Unity and Diversity) regarding two events coming up. On June 4th they are hosting a gospel choir with music intended to support racial harmony, understanding, and community healing. Part of the presentation will be a poetry reading by Lesley McSpadden. Next will be PROUD’s meeting on June 25th which will include an open house with Eric Osterberg from 1:30-3:30 at 100 S. Clay.

Cassandra Butler spoke alleging “huge conflict of interest bubbling up on the council.” She believes an inappropriate request for ARPA funds was made and that it is wrong that a council member is on the agenda for a city contract. She believes council should be “putting rules in place to deal with this.” She spoke of the NPSC’s (Neighborhood Policing Steering Committee) suggestions. Butler stated that, “if you want funding from the city or you want contracts with the city, you should not be on the council and you should resign from the council.” She also added that she thinks “titling of cars and things like that” are due to staffing issues.

Erica Brooks submitted a public comment by email which was read in her absence. She asked about the gate recently put in place between Kinloch and Ferguson on Suburban Ave. She stated, “A quiet veil of racism is settling, taking position in Ferguson and various other municipalities and officials are not keeping us residents informed of the racial shift that’s taking place.” Brooks also said that meetings posted are not taking place or not being recorded. She would like to be able to have the recordings posted online. [Editorial note: Gate has been installed in Kinloch near the Ferguson border as a result of a vote of the Kinloch City Council to put them in place. The City of Ferguson has no jurisdiction over their placement or use.]

City Manager’s Report

Eric Osterberg noted that the city does have a new HR person. Her name is Lita Murray. Her full title is administrative and a human resources specialist. She started about two months ago. An offer has been made and accepted for a Finance Director. He is expected to start June 6th. Osterberg plans to hold a series of meetings concerning the Consent Decree with himself, Nicolle Barton, and Chief of Police Frank McCall. This would review the status and allow public feedback. This will not occur until after the annual budget meetings are completed.

Gene Diaz, Code Enforcement Supervisor, introduced three new staff members in Enforcement. Diaz also noted that they have already been issuing tall grass violation notifications. OpenGov is to be implemented in July and they are prioritizing code enforcement violations and then moving to permit processes.

Chief Frank McCall gave an update on officer interviews, stating that there is one certified officer in the last phase of hiring. We have two cadets attending the June Academy with County. And there are additional interviews scheduled.

Dave Musgrave presented a request for a city partnership for a Juneteenth event. He stated he sent a memo to council, but no details were shared with the public other than this was a group of residents and business owners. He has already offered a discount for the use of city staff time. Musgrave spoke as this as similar to the Twilight Run [but did not note that Twilight Run is a non-profit whereas this proposal is sponsored by a for profit business]  Linda Lipka responded in what was mostly inaudible online, but appeared to be critical. Toni Burrow spoke about her displeasure with not bringing this to council sooner, and stated this was “another fiasco” and expressed displeasure at how the process was handled and bringing it late to council. Heather Robinett stated that this is right around the corner know and seemed already done. She felt the event should be allowed, but the process must be improved.

There was also discussion about getting a true city event started for Juneteenth.

Eric Osterberg then spoke regarding the city’s procurement (purchasing) policy. Osterberg explained that with fiscal constraints and low staffing the principal agent problem arises. The city is looking to hire someone to do the work the city needs help to get done, possibly because they lack the expertise to do so or other reasons. We enter into contracts with a competitive bidding process and first need to communicate expectations.

Based on the current policies, there are two thresholds that trigger bidding. The first is for purchases above $1000-$9999. Within this range, a staff member contacts vendors and gets quotes, but council approval is not needed for the purchase, but spending is set within the budget approved by council. The process changes when purchases are $10,000 or more. This also require council appropriation in the city budget first, but is follow by a request for proposals (RFP) process. The city draws up a document specifying what is needed from a vendor. The city has used two avenues for publicizing RFPs, print media through St. Louis County and digitally on the city website. There is now a new online site, the Missouri Purchasing Group, where vendors get an email notification whenever a new RFP is entered that matches their abilities. The city is responsible for reviewing and analyzing bids to determine if the bidder meets requirements, what credentials they hold, their ability to communicate with the city, and the cost of the work, service, or product. The lowest bid may not come from a vendor able to best do the job.

Osterberg recommends eliminating emergency procurement procedures and contract extensions. These have been used when the city has not efficiently handled work on its own end. Eliminating contract extensions will require a review of the contract and ensure competitive bidding at regular intervals to ensure the city gets the most responsive service and best price. Osterberg also wants a mandatory minimum of three bids. The city has regularly moved forward with only one bid received. Additionally, he is working to standardize contracts for public works, and to establish standardized bid tabulation sheets across the city. This would require the staff to determine criteria and rate all vendors with a committee review process.

Nick Kasoff presented for the Traffic Commission. Kasoff started by confirming that the Traffic Commission unanimously voted for the city to move forward with the most comprehensive traffic calming plan presented by St. Louis County, which includes the roundabout. They also unanimously voted that the cost-sharing proposed by County was outrageous and wanted the City Manager to negotiate the proposed 50-50 split down as far as possible. The commission would also like to have the city purchase a device from Jamar Technologies for the use of the Traffic Commission as a data gathering device. Their plan is to use the device to have an on-going speed study on residential streets 24/7/365 and to publish those results online. This unit would provide data on how many cars passed, and how fast they traveled. There would be no enforcement activity, rather this would gather data to help determine how to identify, address, and prioritize traffic calming efforts.

Farrakhan Shegog of the Urban League spoke on their Federation of Block Units program, which he described as a resident empowerment organization focused on resident leadership and training. They offer partnerships for neighborhood cleanups, support for homeowner repair, health and wellness programs. This requires an application and a $25 a year membership fee. They look for block captains who have time, energy and resources, and are friendly. They host various workshops, such as conflict resolution. Council member Lipka asked about the membership fee and Shegog clarified it was $25 per block.

Resolutions

Osterberg explained that they made an unusual decision to bring three resolutions for the nuisance abatement contracts without providing for a staff recommendation. He noted that there were concerns about transparency concerning this RFP. Bids were received in March of this year. He noted that what drives the cost of this contract in the past has been problems with the city not communicating well, resulting in higher labor costs. Osterberg plans a better process, including sending photos of the sites to be worked, and planning to ensure that charges are accurate.

[Note: The editorial “Another Nuisance” provides additional information about the bids not given during the meeting along with context about the opinion given by the City Attorney Apollo Carey before this meeting that the RFP met the requirements of state law, and there was nothing unlawful in considering a contract with Palmer Residential.]

Council Member Naquittia Noah questioned whether Palmer Residential has an unfair advantage and whether the city feels obligated to “help Councilman Palmer,” then proceeded to say it would be helpful to have a staff recommendation. Council Member Phedra Nelson insisted “Why are we even having this discussion?” and insisted this was “double dipping, I don’t understand how that’s even allowed.”

In the extended debate, Mayor Ella Jones began asking questions of how it was handled last year with giving a contract to two vendors. Burrow objected to the length and kind of discussion, noting that this is not against the law, referring to this as “foolishness,” and noting that there is no conflict of interest. Heather Robinett spoke of her dismay about the “arbitrary scrutiny” given tonight. Robinett went on to note, “Phedra, this is the first time that you’ve spoken this much at a council meeting. Ever. And you are really animated about this.”

Council Member Mike Palmer had remained silent until finally stating: “In the spirit of getting out of here at a reasonable time and being ethical, I’m going to give a little bit of insight into the grass cutting contract. First thing my bid was submitted prior to me being seated on city council. So I bid on this project, assuming that I would not be seated on council. Two, last year, when this went out for bid we [the city] actually took the highest bid when there were multiple bids. So the council actually did a disservice to the community last year by taking the highest bidder. When that highest bidder wasn’t cutting back yards, trimming, or blowing grass, the residents were upset. They went out to bid again. The grass had gotten so long. Nobody did it but me, I did this is a service to my community. Yes, I made a little bit of money. But when you incorporate all the costs to operate a business like labor, work comp insurance, fuel repairs, epi pens, band aids and all the things that are required to clean these sites, there’s a very little income in this. Again, this year we’re in the same predicament. I am, again, the low bidder. I provided the best service last year in a timely fashion and billed accordingly. In the spirit of getting along. I’m going to recuse myself even though I don’t have to legally. This has come up in the past with a former council person for different matters. But I will not be voting on this. And even if this were to be approved, I’m not going to sign the contract because when the grass is not done right it’s on your head for that.”

He continued, “The length of grass is not a good way to do this. And that’s why I did not price it that way. Because the contractor will find the only blade of grass that’s 24 inches long. And then bill at that rate, and that was happening last year. I look at it as when the grass is taller, it’s gonna take me longer. You know, it’s just going to be more anyway because the grass is longer… if it’s two feet tall, you’re cutting it at least twice because you got to lower the blade as you go down. The system where they charge based on length is very arbitrary. It makes it very hard to bill accordingly. And last year, there was issues where the firm was showing up and they were weed whipping the front yard and billing a two hour minimum of $196 and then I was being sent behind them to clean up their mess. So we’ve got to get the facts in order of what’s transpired over the last year and a half in regards to nuisance abatement. I’m not coming in trying to make a fortune off the city again. I was serving a purpose, solving problems that were apparent throughout the community. So I just warn you that it is very hard to find people to do this work. And it will always be a struggle to find people to do this work for any kind of reasonable rate. Ideally, we would do this in house if we had staff because then we would have control over it and our fixed labor cost. But people will be less efficient when they’re working for the government because it’s not glamorous work.”

Finally, there was a motion to table the resolution for a contract with Palmer Residential and approved by vote. The Resolution for Jenkins & Son’s was passed, and the resolution for Walter Knoll Florist failed to pass.

Bills for First Reading

Bill 7227 was postponed.

Discussion for Conflict of Interest Ordinance

Mayor Jones moved to postponed and vote passed to schedule for the next meeting.

The Council also voted to approve holding hybrid In-Person/Zoom meetings beginning with the next meeting. Discussion also noted that the council has budgeted to improve acoustic issues in the council chambers in the next fiscal year. With the hybrid format, people should be able to see and hear meetings better.

Council was adjourned after a brief miscellaneous comments period.