Is the Closed Door Task Force Adding to the City Budget?

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A jumble of documents was found on the city’s website recently related to some meetings of the Mayor’s Task Force. These documents in no way prevent the expected lawsuit against the city for Sunshine violations, as the city simply failed to post meeting notices, agendas, and minutes. But they do provide a small peek into what the Task Force has been doing in their privately held meetings. And these documents raise some serious concerns about how a line item in the City’s budget was introduced to provide $35,000 for a social worker in a yet-to-be determined partnership with Washington University and a third party.

Among the members of the Task Force is one Dr. Jack Kirkland of the Washington University School of the Brown School of Social Work. In addition, at least two students from the Brown School at Wash U are attending meetings. Of special note is the fact that meetings have been held on Washington University’s Zoom license instead of using the city’s account. This means that in the discovery of evidence for a lawsuit pursuing the documentation of these meetings, both Washington University and Dr. Kirkland will likely be named as they appear to hold information that should have been provided months ago had the city complied with state law.

In the third budget meeting, held on May 18th, Kirkland’s name was brought into the discussion of why a line for $35,000 for professional services had been added. As explained by the Acting City Manager, Chief John Hampton, “We were approached by Dr. Kirkland, and so we just listened to him.” And as a result, the city staff discussed a figure and came up with $35,000 for what is to be one third of a shared social worker. Thankfully, two council members, Toni Burrow and Heather Robinett, suggested this was a figure too high for a student or new graduate to receive what would in total be $105,000 salary and benefits. Further discussion changed the figure to $20,000.

However, the fact that city staff would respond so quickly to a Task Force member’s request seems to bear out the concern of council members due to the language of the Task Force’s statement of purpose, which implies that Task Force members could direct city staff. In fact, it seems that Kirkland very clearly directed staff to fund a social worker.

This is not a done deal—yet. Council Member Burrow in particular raised concerns about why this was being done with Washington University when the Council has previously discussed working with the University of Missouri-St. Louis and their School of Social Work on a pro bono basis. Obviously, the city’s savings will be greater by paying nothing to work with UMSL instead of paying for one third to work with Wash U whether the cost be $20,000 or $35,000. Hopefully, a majority of the council will consider the costs—and not simply the financial costs—of entering into an agreement that has grown from discussions in city committees illegally and privately held, and with a person and institution that has used their own resources to divert the committee’s work to be privately conducted.

Recently, a pair of residents met with the Mayor to propose traffic calming measures to relieve speeding and traffic accidents on S. Florissant. Mayor Jones turned them down and nearly two weeks later finally offered a response as to why. In fact, the Mayor asserted “public policy should not be driven by special interest,” in explaining her refusal to support their proposal. Yet, here we find a situation where one of the Mayor’s appointed Task Force members comes in just a week before the budget is assembled and garners a new line of $35,000 added to the budget. Who are the special interests according to the Mayor? This request for city money from a Task Force member only adds to justification to have a petition for a state audit of the city.