Ferguson's City Hall reached overflow capacity this week as dozens of the St. Louis suburb's citizens gathered to hear the City Council discuss two controversial topics that encapsulate the community's lingering concerns about race and policing in the aftermath of the protests that followed the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
A meeting on February 2 was called to solicit input from residents about whether the city should accept an agreement with US Department of Justice, which stemmed from an investigation that found the police department and municipal courts committed civil rights violations. The proposed deal, which could cost the city $1.5 million annually for the next several years, would require Ferguson police officers to wear body cameras and undergo additional training regarding use of force, among other changes.
But there was another reason for the full house at City Hall. A longtime city council member died of a heart attack last month, leaving a vacant seat on the city's governing body. The debate about who ought to be appointed to the position has divided the council along racial lines, with three black council members calling for the job to go to Laverne Mitchom, who is black, and two white members throwing their support behind Robert Chabot, who is white.
Though the three-fifths majority support for Mitchom would seemingly be enough to end the discussion, Ferguson's city attorney has said it takes a minimum of four votes to make the appointment. If the council can't reach an agreement to fill the vacancy within 30 days, embattled Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, who is white, can make the decision unilaterally.
The split has been viewed as an indicator of the degree to which racial tensions still exist in the city, but the city council members are doing their best to play down the situation, suggesting the dispute is more about politics than race.
Ferguson councilman Mark Byrne said he nominated Chabot, the white candidate, because he wanted to honor the wishes of voters who elected Brian Fletcher, a former mayor of Ferguson from 2005 to 2011 who died on January 10.
Despite health problems, Fletcher ran for office after the protests that followed the Michael Brown shooting in August 2014. He also founded the "I Love Ferguson" organization, which sold clothing with the logo to help support local businesses that were damaged when the protests escalated into riots.
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"He ran on the platform of this is a great city and don't let the press or anyone else tell us that this isn't a great city," said Byrne of Fletcher, who was white.
By electing Fletcher, Byrne believes voters indicated they wanted someone with experience in public office. Chabot is a local school board member and served on Fletcher's "I Love Ferguson" committee. Mitchom has not served in public office or on any local committees, Byrne said.
"I called [Mitchom] and asked her to have a cup of coffee so we could meet and discuss things, and she's a nice lady. I did not have any issues with her personally," Byrne said. "Unfortunately [the vote] ended up being on racial lines, but there was absolutely nothing racial in terms of anyone's vote."
But while Byrne used Fletcher's name to justify nominating someone with experience, Councilwoman Ella Jones took the opposite approach. She said that Fletcher had "talked about how it is important to put people in positions not because they know everything, but because they have an opportunity to learn and to grow." She described Mitchom as "teachable and willing to learn."
Before Jones and another black candidate, Wesley Bell, were elected in April 2015, the council only had one black member in a majority-black city. Bell also supports Mitchom to fill the vacant seat — but he claims it has nothing to do with the color of her skin.
"I don't think race played a factor in at all," Bell said. "And I would just say that this council has been very unified throughout the entire year that I have been on it. Most of our votes have been unanimous, so I think it is unfair to characterize one disagreement as some kind of divide."
Whatever the intentions of the council members, after the initial vote to appoint Mitchom on January 26 was not accepted, race quickly became the focus of the conversation. The ACLU of Missouri has since sent a letter to Ferguson City Attorney Stephanie Karr imploring her to install Mitchom, and stating that her ruling about the four-vote minimum misinterpreted the city's charter and rulings in past cases.
"The community will benefit from a decision by Ferguson to follow the law without the necessity of a court order requiring it to do so," the ACLU letter stated.
'If there is one thing that we are 100 percent united in, it's that we don't want the mayor to decide.'
Karr's ruling has also drawn the ire of community activists. At the recent packed meeting, several protesters stood outside, including one who knocked on the door of City Hall with a sign that read "Stop the Karr-uption."
"I am calling on all of council to put an end to this mess, to stand up against prejudice and hatred and emphatically appoint the candidate the majority of council endorsed last week," said Emily Davis, a resident who is active in local politics.
Byrne is emphatic that the council will reach a consensus before the 30-day deadline that allows the mayor to intervene.
"If there is one thing that we are 100 percent united in, it's that we don't want the mayor to decide," said Byrne. "We want to decide this on our own."
The vote is expected to take place February 9 at a meeting where the city will also decide on the proposed agreement with the Justice Department. The city will also hold another hearing for public comment on February 6, this time at a larger venue. A spokesperson for the city said it is not certain that the appointment will take place before the vote on the Justice Department agreement, which some residents oppose because the high costs could force Ferguson to dissolve and become an unincorporated part of St. Louis County.
As for the City Council issue, some residents said they were disappointed in the nomination of Chabot because he was already serving on the school board.
"We have a city of 20,000 people, but it's almost like we have a city of 20 people to where we need to recycle the same person to be on the council," said Cassandra Butler, who has lived in Ferguson for more than 30 years.
Outside the recent meeting, John Knowles, a postal carrier and the cousin of the current mayor, said the city should hold a special election. Knowles previously ran for the City Council, and served on the school board until he resigned amid allegations of improper spending. He said he knew Chabot, but had "never heard of" Mitchom.
Butler, who was standing nearby, interjected. "You have seen her," she said.
Knowles replied that he probably knew more people by their first name then anyone in town, but didn't know Mitchom. He asked where she lived.
Butler replied, "Ferguson, Ward 2."
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