A New Direction for Ferguson

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Some elections preserve the status quo, while others come as an earthquake. It would be difficult to argue, particularly in light of the strife which has marked our council over the past year, that last night should not be counted amongst the latter. While the incumbent was retained in two wards, the turning out of incumbent Fran Griffin in the third ward shifts the balance of power away from the mayor, where it is certain to remain for the next two years. This will surely result in a shift in both style and substance in our council’s proceedings, and in the direction of our city also.

It is clear to anyone paying attention that our city has been in a downward spiral. The stench of neglect and incompetence is everywhere. And our fine citizens, who are accustomed to better, gave weighty margins to the winners. Lipka, whose opponent did not campaign for the seat at all, received 83% of the vote. Robinett defeated Walker with 67%, the largest margin in that ward in a decade for a contested race. And Palmer received 65% in ward 3, a tally exceeded only when Wesley Bell, now county prosecutor, crushed my old friend Lee Smith 76-33 in 2015. With decisive margins in every ward, the new majority comes to Church Street with a mandate. And that mandate is to improve the quality of life for every Ferguson resident, and to restore trust in city government.

Our quality of life is most greatly affected by two factors: reckless driving and crime, both of which have greatly increased in recent years. And it just so happens that both of these problems are the responsibility of our police department. We have watched at one council meeting after another as Chief McCall has presented foggy statistics, and responded to members’ queries with evasion. Council must bring this to an end, and demand that Chief McCall start shooting straight with both the council and the public. McCall violated the charter after the recent officer involved shooting, refusing to allow the civilian review board to see video, and refusing to release video to the public, claiming he was barred from doing so because of the county police investigation, even though their own public information officer said they had no objection to the release of video. Ferguson residents saw nothing until the county released the video of their investigation, and have heard nothing since.

Chief McCall has also failed to make a meaningful effort to reduce the reckless danger on our streets, which continually injures and kills, and destroys both public and private property. Posting a broken down police car at the side of the road is a nifty decoy, but that solution has a very short shelf life. There is no substitute for real traffic enforcement, which must begin immediately. Of course, reducing crime and increasing traffic enforcement requires that the police department have a full staff of officers, and that those who are on light duty resume doing their job. Council might consider a proposal by former councilor Garrett, to recruit UMSL social work graduates to serve as police officers.

Another weak link, over which the city council has direct control, is the city attorney, Apollo Carey. He often seems inattentive and uninformed, serious deficiencies for the man who is charged with ensuring that our city complies with its own ordinances and state law, and who charges our city a great deal for that service. And Mr. Carey, at times, has given the council bad advice. The most recent instance of that was his opinion that councilor Griffin’s bid to remove an insurance requirement from the food truck bill would not place the city in legal or financial jeopardy. It takes no great legal mind to understand that his advice, in which he appeared to say that indemnification by a vendor offered the same protection as an additional insured clause, was absolutely wrong. In the end, and in no way due to any advice of Mr. Carey, even Mayor Jones recognized the hazard which this proposal presented, and the provision was defeated. If Mr. Carey is unable to give prompt, frank, and accurate advice to the council, both during and outside of meetings, he should immediately be replaced with somebody who can.

It has been observed that many Republicans are strong fiscal conservatives, so long as they remain in a powerless minority. This is a type of a common attribute amongst politicians, to blame the majority for problems which, were they to gain the majority, would remain unabated. We shall expect better of our council’s new majority, who must now move past the marathon meetings and endless bickering of recent months, and push forward solutions to our city’s urgent problems. We shall continue to observe, and to ensure that our dear readers remain informed and equipped for action.

Additionally, we have a few quick comments about related matters of some importance. First, as our readers are aware, the mayor has gathered a charter commission. While this commission, with a majority being supporters of the mayor, may recommend to the council an increase in the power and compensation of the mayor, we trust that such efforts will bear no fruit. In fact, we have heard it suggested that we should clarify the role of the mayor in our form of government by changing the title of that position to councilor-at-large. We support such a change, and hope it might be a small step toward reigning in the abuse of that office. We further hope that the new majority will assure city manager Eric Osterberg that he has their full support, and that he can now push back with confidence to gain the full authority of his office.

Finally, a quick word about transparency. First of all, Ferguson must immediately start complying with Missouri’s sunshine law. Only the cost and inconvenience of litigating against sunshine violations has saved Ferguson from a great many suits. Ferguson could also bring a great deal more sunshine to the city by implementing the provision of state law which allows them to fill requests without charge to those seeking information for a public purpose, such as a reporter working on a story. Council must also minimize their use of closed sessions. The sunshine law allows meetings to be closed in some circumstances, but it almost never requires it. Closed sessions should be quite rare, and to the extent possible, a summary of the specific topics addressed in closed session, rather than a generic statutory authorization, should be provided prior to the session.

Ultimately, every change must be judged by its results. Our city has been through constant change for a good bit, some for the better, some for the worse. We continue to believe that it is possible to have a city which treats every person fairly and with respect, but also maintains a high quality of life for those who live there. Ferguson has yet to become that city. Though we don’t expect miracles, we hope the new majority on council can move us in that direction. As our city sets forth in a new direction, we shall remain your faithful eyes and ears.