Council Meeting Recap – November 15, 2023

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Last night’s council meeting was a perfect illustration of the inability of the current council to accomplish even the most simple tasks. Since the last municipal election, the council has considered almost nothing of substance. With the exception of tweaks to the conflict of interest disclosure requirements, and clarifying that the city clerk must verify that board and commission members must be current on taxes, the agendas are filled with routine resolutions which were prepared by staff and passed without discussion. The agendas also include an exceptional amount of closed sessions, a matter which we will address in a future story.

First, the council was to consider, for the first time in recent memory, four bills which made meaningful changes to city code:

Bill 7262 – Requires property taxes to be paid as a condition of renewing a business license.
Bill 7263 – Clarifies that the city clerk must verify tax compliance for liquor license renewal.
Bill 7264 – Imposes parking requirements on car lots, prohibits long term parking of junk cars.
Bill 7265 – Requires the city to apply building permit fees to the cost of outsourced permit reviews.

Prior to public comment, Mayor Jones indicated that the bills would not be taken up for second reading, because it failed a charter provision requiring that “Every bill introduced shall be filed with the city clerk and posted in a public place three days prior to its first reading and shall remain on file in the clerk’s office for public inspection.” Mayor Jones sought to remedy this by scheduling a work session to discuss the bills, and her motion to table the bills was supported by councilors Ashby, Lipka, and Nelson, with councilors Palmer and Robinett opposed. In fact, this bill was filed with the city clerk a full week before its first reading. It was given to the city attorney, who made minor changes, and was distributed to council on the Friday prior to the previous meeting.

Mr. Ashby has made it clear in previous meetings that he does not wish to have legislation introduced until council has the opportunity to discuss it in work sessions, and solicit input from staff. When Mr. Palmer moved to amend the agenda, because the clerk had failed to include the first reading of his bills, Ashby objected, and complained that he would not have sufficient time to consider the bills. Mrs. Robinett responded that the period between first and second readings, after which a final vote it taken, are the time granted to council to consider proposed bills. In the case of these bills, council had a full three weeks to consider and discuss them. Each of the bills changed only a few sentences of the municipal code.

Public comment was chiefly from members of the business community who, because of misinformation provided to them by Alan Mueller, were concerned that they would be put out of business. This was wrong on several counts. First, the liquor license renewal ordinance already requires that property taxes be paid – this simply clarifies that the city clerk is responsible for verifying that. And more important, this puts an obligation on the city to notify both landlord and tenant in cases where delinquent taxes present a bar to license renewal, a notification which does not presently exist. Right now, if the current law was followed, these businesses would have their licenses terminated without notice. Furthermore, liquor license renewals are on July 1. Property taxes are due on December 31. So in fact, there is a full six months for the property owner to remedy tax deficiencies. We regret that the business community was misled by Mr. Mueller’s incorrect information, and wasted their time responding to a danger that did not exist.

I also commented, and brought out an important point about the liquor renewal ordinance: It is already working. There were three seriously delinquent properties, the BP station at Woodstock and Florissant, the strip center which includes Midwest Wine Bar, and the strip mall which includes USA Market. After Mr. Palmer introduced the bills, the owner of the BP station paid their back taxes, a total of nearly $34,000. The owner of the strip center which includes Midwest Wine Bar also paid up, a total of more than $18,000. The owner of the strip center which includes USA Market, who by appearances is the same person who owns the liquor store itself, has not yet paid his delinquent taxes of more than $32,000. Nearly $14,000 in additional taxes will come due on that property at the end of the year. With his business at stake, we are hopeful that he too will pay his taxes.

As I explained in a conversation with a business owner after the council meeting, nobody wants to put anyone out of business. These bills, which would also extend the tax requirement to the general business license, provide notification, and ample time to remedy the tax deficiency. But in the end, a landlord who is collecting rent but not paying taxes must be compelled to pay. Residents, who are by no means an affluent group, have been tapped for several tax increases in recent years, while several large commercial projects have obtained abatements and other benefits, and a great deal of commercial property has been taken off the tax rolls for non-profit use. For the sake of our city, our schools, and the other entities which receive these taxes, commercial landlord need to pay what they owe.

The city manager’s report was also nothing memorable. However, Mr. Hampton made one startling announcement: The city is unwilling to publish closed session minutes on the city website, as they wish to charge a fee to obtain them. Mr. Ashby justified this, commenting that “It’s not like we’re really doing anything in secret, the public ultimately finds out what we did.” That would be a great point, were it true. But in fact, a great many things they do in closed session are never disclosed to the public, unless somebody sunshines the minutes, which has never happened before. We have placed a request for the minutes for 2023, and will publish them here as soon as we receive them. The city is charging us nearly $40 for these minutes, and unlike almost every other entity we deal with, does not waive fees for media requests.

Following the city manager report, Ava Weyrauch and Matthew Knapp were recognized by the police chief for their fundraising on behalf of the canine unit. The dog himself was present, as were the proud parents. This was, in fact, the high point of an otherwise disappointing meeting. Having canceled the entire substance of the meeting, all that remained was approval of minutes, proclamations about awards which had nothing to do with Ferguson to people who have no connection to Ferguson, an announcement that the again non-functioning EDST will be reconstituted at some point in the future, and an adjournment to closed session. We can only hope that the closed session resulted in a final resolution of an agreement to appoint John Hampton as city manager. We will put in a sunshine request for the minutes.

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Nick Kasoff
Nick Kasoff, the editor of The Ferguson Observer, is a tax professional, landlord, information systems consultant, Libertarian committeeman, and community activist. A Ferguson resident since 2005, he formed the Observer with the help of a strong crew of fellow volunteers, who shared his belief that a regular record of the events and musings of this community was of great importance.