Why Ferguson Council Meetings Make Me Want to Scream

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[Note: This story was updated to include new information that Donald Stevens recently donated to the campaign for Mayor Ella Jones.]

I started writing for the Observer nearly two years ago. Nearly all council meetings for the past two years, I’ve written summaries. I had been a regular meeting attendee long before I started writing about the meetings. Yet, I have no rational explanation for why I have done this or continue to do so. It’s unhealthy, frustrating, and ugly. The meetings are poorly run and managed—even with the recent emphasis on ending earlier. I must be crazy to voluntarily do this work. The last council meeting was notable in serving as a Master Class on why anyone who serves on a Ferguson Board or Committee must be at least equally crazy to voluntarily take on such work. Watching council meetings as an informed viewer will make you want to open your front door and scream.

Throughout the meeting, in public comments, in special presentations, and in the ultimate act, the council’s final vote and abrupt rejection of the entirety of over a year’s worth of work by the Redistricting Commission as a favor for a friend of Mayor Ella Jones and Councilor Phedra Nelson. Again and again, the Ferguson City Council proves that they are the biggest obstacle to the work of city boards and commissions. The function of these bodies is to allow residents to provide an advisory role in policy making, in turn making the council and city staff responsive to the concerns of residents. But this is rejected and undermined on a regular basis by the council.

In public comments, multiple residents spoke of problems concerning the boards and commissions. The current chair of the Economic Development Sales Tax Commission complained of lack of communication of city staff with residents and board members, and that during commission meetings the staff liaison seems more interested in having the members rubber stamp what staff seeks rather than allow the commission to act as an advisory body. The chair of the Traffic Commission felt obstructed because the Jamar unit purchased for traffic studies was not being deployed for months and no traffic studies were being conducted. The chair of the Civilian Review Board spoke in public comments for the 97,104th time (that total may be slightly off, I did not verify) specifically noting the vacancies on his board and the problems in getting a quorum so that meetings can be held.

A member of the Personnel Board complained that no one has contacted her since she was appointed. (That may be because she may well be the sole member appointed to that board. A June 2022 list of board and commission members that somehow slipped out of the confines of the city clerk who guards it but has refused past requests to provide it publicly lists but one person then on that board—and that person since moved from Ferguson.) And two different members of the Board of Adjustments spoke concerning how the council has been moving forward with ordinances that impact their board by combining other duties from boards the council seeks to eliminate—but that no one has spoken with the board members about these proposed changes.

And all of that was in just the public comments section of the meeting. Phew.

In a special presentation, the chair of the Ferguson Neighborhood Improvement Program (FNIP) spoke on their work. This board took a year-long hiatus due to a lack of appointments and has had some cancelled meetings since it’s reconstitution due to lack of a quorum. The chair thanked council for appointing a new member that evening. This seems progressive and encouraging. But unfortunately it seems clear that board is being filled because they are charged with approving applications for the use of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds.

But it was in the meeting’s vote on the Redistricting ordinance that the real sucker punch was delivered to those who serve on boards and commissions, in a vote with three against the ordinance (Councilor Naquittia Noah, Mayor Ella Jones, and Councilor Phedra Nelson), three for the ordinance (Councilors Mike Palmer, Heather Robinett, and Linda Lipka) and one non-voting Councilor (Toni Burrow) due to absence. This despite all six of those present and voting had previously formally voted in November for the Commission’s proposal approved that the proposal to move forward as an ordinance. No explanation was given by any of the three who flipped to vote against the ordinance, but it seems most likely that three had discussed their votes against the redistricting ahead of time given that the roll began with Noah’s vote.

What happened? Well, Don Stevens, well known as a long-time friend of both Mayor Ella Jones and Councilor Phedra Nelson, was a vocal opponent of the proposed changes. He submitted a comment that included two petitions, one making a false claim that redistricting would prevent efforts for his subdivision to become a historic district and a second simply stating that those signing did not want to be in Ward 3. Oddly, that second petition was inappropriately also signed by Councilor Phedra Nelson. Details about this can be found in this editorial here. Stevens spoke at three different council meetings against the proposal, becoming the lone voice of dissent against the Commission’s proposal. Don Stevens is also recorded as donating $200 to Friends of Ella Jones on 12/28/2022 for Jones’ upcoming campaign for re-election.

Yet perhaps the most insulting part of Mayor Jones’s own flipped vote against redistricting was that the Commission was comprised of mayoral appointees. Jones first started to appoint the Commission in October when she announced her selections of Elzora Douglas and Tim Larson, until she was interrupted by Councilor Linda Lipka, who asked why Council had not been informed of Jones’ intent to appoint the commission prior to the meeting. After agreeing to postpone, the actual appointments were made at the December 14, 2021 meeting and consisted of the same two persons Mayor Jones had originally selected, plus LeaRon Aaron. Aaron never attended a meeting and was eventually replaced by Michael Salant. In addition to the council’s track record demonstrating a lack of support in appointing members and supporting their work, we now have the example of the Mayor rejecting the work of her hand-picked Commission members only to support the complaint of one resident who just happens to be her personal friend. Why would any rational person want to spend hours of volunteer time trying to better the Ferguson community, if all will be tossed aside because of the personal whims of a friend of the Mayor’s?

The destructive actions of our council may just make you want to step outside and scream too.