Fiduciary Duty

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A few weeks ago, Ferguson finally got a new ice cream shop in the downtown business district. It’s a nice shop, with good ice cream, and plenty of seating. But to the surprise of many of us, it is not located in the Whistle Stop train depot, a city owned building which served as an ice cream shop until it closed during the pandemic. Since then, it has sat empty.

Less than a year ago, a Ferguson resident with restaurant experience approached the city, with a plan to open a restaurant in the train depot. After several attempts to email and call, none of which were returned, he came to a city council meeting to express his frustration. The response of city officials was, if I recall correctly, “We’ll be in touch.” That never happened.

On election day, Mayor Jones approached me at Johnson-Wabash Elementary, and told me that the reason nobody contacted the prospective tenant was that somebody else had “dibs” on leasing the train depot. Of course, there is no such thing. If there were multiple parties interested in leasing the depot, staff would present those options to council, which would decide what proposal was in the best interest of the city and its residents. That is what’s called fiduciary duty: a legal or ethical obligation to act in the best interest of somebody else.

In this case, apparently, a friend of the mayor has been informally given exclusive rights to lease this property, despite no public process, no consideration by council of alternatives, no serious effort at soliciting the best deal for the city. Somebody with the right connection got “dibs.” And so, the Whistle Stop sits empty.

Unfortunately, this lack of proper process isn’t limited to the Whistle Stop. At a recent council meeting, an application for transfer of real estate from the city had to be tabled, because somebody pointed out that the city did not own the property, and could not obtain it. The property, a house on Florissant Road across from January-Wabash Park, will be in this year’s 1st tax sale if the owners don’t make a payment. That means it’s at least four years away from being eligible for any city program. A few months earlier, the city awarded a vacant lot to the owner of a rental property, in violation of the requirements for the city’s adjacent side lot program. And of course, there was the nuisance abatement debacle, which was revealed by an article in this publication.

These are just the things we know about. It’s impossible to know how often the city misallocates, misjudges, missteps, or even misappropriates. We believe that Chief Hampton is doing his best to get a handle on the sloppy and slipshod, but we also believe it is practically and politically impossible for him to do so single handedly, particularly when he serves at the pleasure of a council which is itself guilty of a great many failures. They have confirmed people to boards who were not residents of the city, and others who did not meet other requirements. They were ultimately responsible for the improper awarding of the side lot. How many other details have been overlooked? Again, it is impossible to know. To bring our city government closer to carrying out its legal and fiduciary duty to its residents, the scrutiny of an outside party, with the authority, training, and experience to detect the problems which plague our city, is long overdue.

In Missouri, such scrutiny comes from the state auditor. During the election, both myself and Mayor Jones expressed support for a state audit. Because she won the election, Mayor Jones could have introduced a bill at the first meeting of the new council session, as I would have done. But like so many other things, the mayor has swept her state audit promise under the rug. That leaves it to the residents of the city to pass a petition for an audit. If Mayor Jones will not keep her word, and council will not do its job, we must take matters into our own hands.

A state audit isn’t free, but it will pay off in better, more efficient government, and ultimately, a better city. There is a cost to our community each time a city official or employee fails in their fiduciary duty. Sometimes, as was the case with the nuisance abatement contractor, they get caught. But usually they do not. Those undetected failures manifest themselves in work not done – streets and parks not maintained, and the countless other failures which occur because city workers are too busy, or budgets are too low, or just because nobody bothered. We see the results of failure, but we haven’t accurately diagnosed the cause. Why are we ignoring prospective tenants for the Whistle Stop, while it sits empty and neglected? Perhaps the state auditor can find out.