Passion, worry reign at Ferguson's second consent decree forum

Feb 6, 2016

Community stakeholders continue to give conflicting messages to Ferguson city council members as the council approaches an expected vote Tuesday on a proposed consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The city held its second public forum on the proposed decree Saturday, with a long list of passionate speakers keeping the meeting in session an extra hour. City officials also spent time answering questions raised at the previous forum, and Ferguson’s outside attorney hired to negotiate with the DOJ spoke for about 20 minutes.

“Who is going to implement this decree when the city of Ferguson ceases to exist? If there is no Ferguson there is no reform,” said Ferguson resident Bill Tucker, Saturday’s first speaker. “Even with two tax increases the people in Ferguson will not be able to pay the demands of our dictators in Washington.”

While state law does not have a process for the dissolution of charter cities like Ferguson unless they break state law, fear that the city could disappear under the weight of the consent decree was a common theme Saturday, just as it was on Tuesday.  Like Tucker, most people who spoke against the decree expressed concern over the cost of implementing the decrees requirements, which include extensive police training and court reform.

“I can’t see going further in agreement with this,” Mary Ellen Ryan said. “Even though we pretty much all agree we want better police, even if we have the better police we will lose it because our town won’t be here.”

City officials increased their initial cost estimate Saturday from $1.5 million a year to between $2.1 million and $3.7 million the first year, with slight reductions thereafter.

Christine Assefa listens as Ferguson city officials answer questions about the Department of Justice's proposed consent decree.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Dan Webb, an outside attorney hired by the city to negotiate with the DOJ, told forum attendees that failing to accept the decree would almost certainly tie up the city in litigation with the DOJ for years.

Webb estimated legal fees from a court fight could cost Ferguson roughly $4 to $8 million, prompting life-long Ferguson resident Tom James to suggest the city might be better off going to court.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III listens to public comments on Saturday during a public hearing at the Ferguson Community Center.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“Do not agree to this consent decree,” James told the council, adding that he supported the “spirit of the decree” but was against accepting it “only because of the standpoint of cost. If it’s going to cost more to enforce it than to have our say in court, then we have our say in court.”

Other speakers disagreed, saying they were more concerned about the human cost than dollars and cents.

“The Department of Justice is here because you guys have messed up,” Ferguson resident Nikki Brandt told the city council. “You have encouraged a police department that takes advantage of their citizens. You have encouraged a culture of oppression and abuse.”

Ferguson resident Laura Charles applauds for a speaker during the public comment portion of Saturday's meeting.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Referencing Web’s high legal fees, Brandt added: “You want to talk about the cost? This man, this company, makes $1300 an hour. That’s what some of your residents make in a month. That is somebody’s life that you are throwing away to fight the truth.”

Ferguson resident Francesca Griffin said she had to wonder if the people who were arguing for further negotiation with the DOJ would do so if they were concerned about their rights being infringed upon.

“My human rights mean more to me than money basically. You can’t put a price on that for me. I think that just like other people are afforded the luxury of having those rights I should be as well,” Griffin said.

Kae Brandt, 4, tests out a spray paint can alongside a sign made by his dad, Ferguson resident Carl Brandt, following Saturday's meeting.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“Nobody was worried about the cost when they had people locked up in jail for a traffic ticket for four weeks,” said Anthony Cage.

Some speakers suggested that Ferguson’s cost estimates were inflated, and wondered whether the city was including the cost of reforms it has already begun implementing.

Others expressed doubt that the consent decree would have a lasting impact since it only requires Ferguson to change, not the rest of the St. Louis region.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.