Council Recap – February 13, 2024

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Last night’s council meeting was yet another display of dysfunction, from beginning to end. First, the public comment section was an organized effort at attacking councilor Palmer. Speaker after speaker came to the podium and went directly to the same misleading and politically motivated attacks which have been leveled against Palmer since his resounding defeat of Fran Griffin. In the common application of Robert’s Rules, commenters are prohibited from such attacks against a council member, and the chair is responsible for stopping them. But Mayor Jones sat silently as her allies took shot after shot at her political opponent.

Chief Doyle provided his monthly report, which, in contrast to his predecessor, was detailed, understandable, and informative. We presently have 26 patrol officers, of an authorized 30. In total, the department has 70% of its authorized officers, and 77% of its authorized total staff. A public information officer and training coordinator have been hired. Mr. Hampton announced that the “Sculptureworks building” on Florissant Road will be utilized as a police training center. Traffic citations for 2024 were at about half the level of 2023, because officers were busy on higher priority calls. Failure to yield is an increasing problem, with 17 incidents this year.

Larry Robinett, chair of the Ferguson Neighborhood Improvement Program, provided an update on the great work they are doing in Ferguson. Last year, they approved 142 exterior improvement matching grants, of which 85 have already been completed and paid. The program paid out $127,000, leading to total improvements of $476,000. They also provided $2,500 “Good Neighbor” grants to six new homeowners. That program has continued this year, with $90,000 in grants committed and more than $270,000 in total work. The tree program, where residents will be able to have dead trees removed for half the cost, is approaching the bid stage.

Next up was public hearings. First, Ella’s Kitchen, located next to Victorian Plaza, sought a liquor license. A public hearing was required because there is a church across the street. The church, which by all appearances is defunct, gave the restauranteur a letter indicating they have no objection to liquor sales. Councilor Lipka asked whether a prospective buyer of the church would be able to reverse this decision. While council has discretion at annual renewal, it would be both unlikely and unfair to take away an existing license because a new church moved in.

The next agenda items were two public hearings related to properties owned by Mike Palmer: a request for a conditional use permit for a used car lot, and combining several lots that are too small for building into a single larger lot. At this point, Mayor Jones immediately made a motion to table those public hearings, on the grounds that the planning commission meeting at which the measures were recommended violated the sunshine law. Specifically, one member of the commission was present by telephone. Jones claimed that RSMo 610.015 prohibited that, requiring that those attending virtually use videoconferencing. Jones proposed to send these measures back to the planning commission for another vote, which could delay the measure by months. However, the planning commission is an appointed body, to which the statute clearly does not apply:

All votes taken by roll call in meetings of a public governmental body consisting of members who are all elected, except for the Missouri general assembly and any committee established by a public governmental body, shall be cast by members of the public governmental body who are physically present and in attendance at the meeting or who are participating via videoconferencing.

A roll call was taken, and the mayor’s measure was defeated, with Lipka, Ashby, Robinett and Palmer voting against, and Jones, Nelson, and Noah voting in favor. The public hearing on the car lot continued, with a great many Palmer critics testifying against him, and a comment by myself in favor of the project. As I have noted elsewhere, the idea that Florissant Road south of Suburban is going to become a walkable entertainment district is a fantasy which the city can ill afford to indulge. This district, extending from Carson to Woodstock, would be half again longer than the Delmar Loop, and lacking the support of 15,000 mostly affluent Washington University students within walking distance. Cassandra Butler argued that rather than doing it by special use permit and granting a monopoly to one dealer, the use should be opened up to multiple lots that could compete. I agree.

In other business, a resolution was passed that released 20 older city vehicles for sale. Mr. Hampton indicated that the city would first hold an auction open to city employees and residents, before making them available to the public. Mr. Palmer asked the city attorney whether the purchase of a car would constitute a contract. He said that it would, upon which Palmer noted that the charter prohibits employees and elected officials from entering into contracts with the city. Hampton indicated that they would do further research on the matter before proceeding. Council also approved retaining a contingency fee grant writer. There was a first reading of bills granting a temporary easement and a piece of land along West Florissant to St. Louis county.

All other items on the agenda were tabled.