Ferguson Council Meeting 1/25/22: Traffic Commission Appointments Rebuffed, Council Candidate on Ballot Despite Disqualification

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Ferguson City Council held a special meeting and a regular council meeting Tuesday evening, meeting for a total of about four hours. There were two main highlights–a move to appoint needed members to the Traffic Commission was blocked and the city declined to remove a candidate for the upcoming Council election from the ballot who should have been disqualified under Missouri Ethics laws.

Here’s the scoop on these two issues:

1) Additional appointments to the Traffic Commission were blocked after Council Members Naquittia Noah and Fran Griffin said they wanted more time to get someone from Third Ward appointed. This comes after each has had several months to seek out candidates and neither have found anyone who has submitted an application to join the commission. Council Member Lipka noted that the Commission is not required to have representation from each ward, only that members are city residents. Further, the committee has twice been forced to cancel meetings this month because of unavailability of members. At the current level, only one member can be absent, or the commission will lack a quorum and be unable to conduct business. Filling the full committee would allow the commission to make a quorum when more members are unable to attend. [Note: A quorum is determined by the number of seats within each board or commission, not the number of current appointees.] The plea to make appointments was refused in a vote in which Griffin, Noah, Jones, and Nelson voted to wait until next meeting so that candidates specifically identified by Griffin and/or Noah could be presented rather than accept the current interested applicants solely because they were not residents of Ward 3.

Prior to the vote Council Member Robinett warned against the expectation of placing members from every ward on boards and commissions, stating that introducing this expectation could stop work entirely as many boards and commissions would not be able to meet. Council Member Toni Burrow also warned that what was happening here will “set a precedent that will come back to haunt the city.” Referring to the vociferous opposition offered by Griffin against Lipka’s suggestion to approve the current applications, Burrow continued “25-30 minutes ago there was a solution. But we were too busy opposing one another to come to a viable solution.”

2) In new business Council Member Linda Lipka presented the issue that the city placed an ineligible and disqualified candidate on the ballot for the April 5, 2022 election for City Council. The candidate, tactfully unnamed during the meeting, but known to be Lawrence S. Berry, failed to file a Personal Financial Disclosure with the Missouri Ethics Commission by deadline. That failure to file should have resulted in ineligibility for the ballot and disqualification as a candidate. However, the city does not think they have the authority to remove him, so his name was sent to the Board of Elections to be placed on the ballot, even though they were aware he should not be on the ballot.

Lipka asked a series of questions of City Clerk Octavia Pittman, who also serves as an election official for the city, and of City Attorney Apollo Carey. Pittman and Carey confirmed that the city was aware that a candidate had failed to submit the required financial disclosure by deadline, and that the name was submitted for the ballot despite full knowledge that he should have been disqualified. Pittman acknowledged that the form Lipka read, which states the requirement for filing and the penalty of being removed from the ballot if not fulfilled, was one she signs after each candidate has signed.

The city has an ordinance 2020-3681, bill no. 7190 that exempts the city of Ferguson from the Missouri Ethics Commission as the governing body for situations of conflict of interest including the issues of providing a personal financial disclosure. But the city of Ferguson put this person on the ballot despite the city ethics ordinance.

As Lipka explained, “Here’s the question my fellow council women, who enforces those rules? The ordinance doesn’t state who enforces.  Now I would argue that an ordinance is enforceable by the city manager or the city attorney or the entity tasked to enforce a particular ordinance.  This one, I would argue, should be enforced by our city manager and attorney.”

However, the city has cited that the charter, section 5.3 Administrative Officers Not to Engage in Political Activity prohibits their ability to enforce election regulations.  Lipka continued, “So where does that leave us, I believe it begs the withdrawal of ordinance 2020-3681 and allow the Missouri Ethics Commission to handle these type of issues going forward, to take the pressure off of our city administrators, like our city clerk, city manager and city attorney and allow the commission created in the state of Missouri to handle these things, handle them for Ferguson just as they do for Florissant and all of our surrounding communities.”

Lipka moved for a vote that the city begin to the process to repeal the ordinance in order to make way an ordinance that clearly states enforcement of penalties under Missouri law for elections. The motion was seconded and passed unanimously.

[The Observer will be reaching out to Council Member Linda Lipka and candidate Lawrence Berry for more on this unusual situation. At this point, little is known of Berry and his interest in running for council. It is clear from his record available on Missouri CaseNet (https://www.courts.mo.gov/) that Berry has complicated personal finances and has a past and present record of lawsuits involving debts and garnishments.]

In addition to this video and summary, please see an editorial about last night’s meeting by Nick Kasoff.