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Kirkwood, Justice Dept. to sign racial mediation pact Thursday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Officials from the city of Kirkwood and the U.S. Department of Justice will sign a formal agreement Thursday, completing a two-year racial mediation process that followed the killings on Feb. 7, 2008, in the Kirkwood City Hall. Five city officials and the gunman were killed. A sixth official, Mayor Mike Swoboda, was critically injured in the shootings and died later that year.

Mayor Art McDonnell confirmed Wednesday that the final agreement will be signed at 7 p.m. at City Hall. McDonnell said he could not give details, but that the city would be making a number of commitments, one of which was "a new initiative to change the Human Rights Commission."

After Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton shot and killed the city officials, the Justice Department's Community Relations Service came to Kirkwood with an offer to conduct a mediation process between representatives of the community and Kirkwood city government to address "perceived racial issues."

Kirkwood passed a resolution endorsing the mediation process and the Department of Justice, assisted by C.J. Larkin of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Program at Washington University law school, began selecting individuals to identify areas of concern. 

Last September, Harriet Patton, a leader from the Meacham Park neighborhood of Kirkwood, resigned as a member of the community mediation team because city officials on the team kept saying, in her words, "Kirkwood does not have a racial problem. There is nothing broken, nothing needs to be fixed."

Patton said Tuesday night that she still was upset with the way the mediation process had been handled. She has sent friends and allies an invitation to attend the signing of the agreement on Thursday to express their views.

"Hear Ye! Hear Ye!," read her invitation. "Everyone must come out to Kirkwood City Hall and voice your opinion about their statement of the racial situation in Kirkwood and their recommendations to improve the situation. We need to pack the house on this day in the city of Kirkwood."

The community mediation team had consisted of Patton, Ron Hodges, the Rev. David Bennett, Lois Bliss, the Rev. Vernon Gundermann, Charles Howard and Cynthia Isaac. They began meeting in October 2008 to identify issues and then started meeting in April 2009 with the city team, which included Chief Administrative Officer Mike Brown, Mayor Art McDonnell, Police Chief Jack Plummer, Assistant Chief Operating Officer Georgia Ragland, and council member Iggy Yuan.

A news release from Kirkwood last summer said that the two teams had discussed home repair programs completed during the redevelopment of Meacham Park, police and community relations and ways to strengthen the city's Human Rights Advisory and Awareness Commission.

Patton was a critic of the home repair program. But her main complaint, she said last fall, was "Kirkwood's unwillingness to acknowledge that there is a problem, that is a difficult problem. Our public officials seem not to have a reality check when it comes to racism in Kirkwood."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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