Power Over People

704

In last night’s disgraceful city council meeting, Mayor Ella Jones continued to demonstrate the hazard which her absolute power over city government presents for every resident of this city. She made clear, to anybody who had not yet gotten the message, that Ferguson is now governed by the whims of a person rather than the rule of law.

First, there was the matter of appointments to the traffic commission. As every resident of this city knows, reckless driving poses a danger to anyone who dares to venture past their own driveway. On a short trip to the grocery store, one is likely to behold motorists traveling at double the speed limit, weaving in and out of traffic, even using oncoming traffic lanes and zooming through red lights without so much as a pause. Our first responders are constantly engaged in dealing with the aftermath of such misconduct, to the cost and detriment of all who live here. These lunatics crash into innocent motorists, parked cars, and even buildings.

In light of this ongoing disaster, one might think that appointing a full complement of members to the traffic commission would be a priority. Last fall, Mayor Jones declined to proceed with implementing a city sponsored engineering study for traffic calming on Florissant Road, saying that “we must have a traffic commission” review the plan first. In the intervening months, council member Linda Lipka, council liaison to the commission, has accepted applications from five residents seeking to serve, and those applications were approved by the council. Unfortunately, quorum rules require four members to do any commission business, and with Covid, flu, and personal conflicts, the last two scheduled meetings have been cancelled for lack of quorum.

The appointment of two additional members would ensure that the commission can do business at each scheduled meeting. Lipka obtained applications from two additional residents who sought to serve, and asked council to approve them. But council members Fran Griffin and Naquittiah Noah objected, claiming that they were entitled to appoint members from the 3rd ward. Providing geographical balance is all well and good, but over the months during which the commission was seeking members, not a single application was submitted from the 3rd ward. Now, the commission must continue to pause its life saving work, so that Griffin and Noah can twist arms to obtain applications. Mayor Jones, illustrating her ignorance of city ordinances, claimed that the commission was required to have members from each ward, but was corrected in that regard by the city clerk. Nonetheless, Jones insisted that “in the spirit of cooperation” the commission would be put on hold, to give 3rd ward council members another month to do their job. We hope this delay does not cause further death in our community. Abating the risk of death and destruction is of less concern to Mayor Jones and her allies than boosting their political power in every corner of government.

Later, Lipka raised the issue of a candidate’s failure to meet the qualifications for remaining on the ballot for city council. Under Missouri law, each candidate must have filed a personal financial disclosure by January 11. There is a grace period of seven days, during which a fine of $10 per day is assessed. But if the disclosure is not filed by January 18, state law specifies that the candidate is to be removed from the ballot. Each candidate for council signs a notice when delivering their petition for candidacy to the city clerk, acknowledging both the requirement, and the associated penalties. As of yesterday, January 25, Lawrence Berry, who opposes Lipka in the 1st ward, had filed no disclosure.

Because Ferguson has its own ethics law, the Missouri Ethics Commission, ordinarily tasked with carrying out the removal, leaves enforcement to the city. But the city, protecting a potential ally to Mayor Jones, claims it is powerless to enforce its own law. Apollo Carey, the city attorney, cites charter chapter 5.3 as an insurmountable barrier to this:

Section 5.3 – Administrative Officers Not to Engage in Political Activity

Neither the city manager nor any person holding an administrative office or position under the city manager’s supervision shall be a candidate for mayor or city council member or engage, directly or indirectly, in sponsoring, electioneering or contributing money or other things of value for any person who is a candidate for mayor or council. All such persons shall retain the right to vote as they choose and to express their opinions on all political subjects. Any person violating the provisions of this section shall be removed in the manner provided in the personnel code.

This is an absurd and fallacious misinterpretation of the charter’s clear language. The charter provision enjoins a small list of specific actions, “sponsoring, electioneering or contributing money or other things of value.” That means the city clerk can’t contribute money to a campaign for city council or mayor. It doesn’t mean that city employees are prohibited from doing their job, carrying out the laws of the city. Were that the case, it would be equally unlawful for the city clerk to accept candidate petitions, or deliver them to the county for verification. It would be illegal for the police to take action against a candidate who decided to hold a rally in the middle of Florissant Road during rush hour. It would be illegal for the fire department to extinguish a bonfire in the police department driveway, provided that the bonfire was lit for campaign purposes. Of course, nobody would make the absurd argument that the charter provision blocks city employees from doing their job. Yet in this narrow circumstance, they have done precisely that.

Attorney Carey repeatedly professed ignorance of ordinance and state laws governing a situation which had been presented to him long before the meeting. Carey is either doing the mayor’s bidding in an effort to keep his position, or his interpretation of law is so sloppy that the city should immediately replace him. And let’s not forget, Carey didn’t just arrive in Ferguson last week. The ordinance which takes authority from the state must be passed by council every two years. Carey has been city attorney through two passages of this law, and was in each case responsible for ensuring that it was proper and lawful. If his current interpretation of the charter is accurate, he failed in that, and his negligence has left the city vulnerable.

In any case, the path forward is clear: The city must stop hiding behind a willfully incorrect misinterpretation of the charter, and immediately take lawful and necessary action of removing the non-compliant candidate from the ballot. The city’s failure to do so last night again demonstrates the level to which ineptness and corruption have saturated our city government. Mayor Jones, who has led the city for two years now, bears responsibility for this.

In addition to this editorial, check out the video and summary of the meeting by my colleague Sara Holmes.