On the Trail: The year-long education of Ferguson Mayor James Knowles
In a year filled with trials and tribulations that few municipal officials face in a lifetime, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles learned quite a bit.
Throughout the 12 months that followed Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a former Ferguson police officer, Knowles said his city found out the hard way how important it is for a government to communicate with its residents. Just because somebody doesn’t speak up at a council meeting or through an e-mail, Knowles said, doesn’t mean “there aren’t issues out there that need to be addressed.”
"Communication on Ferguson’s behalf has been a constant struggle, especially with the small staff that we have," said Knowles, responding to a question about where his city's officials and other elected leaders fell short. "And of course dealing with, frankly, what is a media onslaught. It’s very difficult for a small community."
Still, Knowles says his city has made significant changes to its maligned municipal court and police department since Brown's death. And even as there’s intense local and national interest into how his city will change internally, Knowles isn’t seeing the same sorts of pressures within some of the towns that surround Ferguson.
"...within weeks of the beginning of the unrest, we really took a serious look at ourselves. Both of our policing, our courts, how we do our fines and fee schedules, how our court functions,” Knowles said. “And we began making tremendous progress and reforms immediately. I think it’s frustrating that those reforms have not been copied by many other communities that absolutely need to take a look at that.”
What Knowles is alluding to is how cities surround Ferguson have had issues with their police departments and municipal courts. Many of these cities are predominantly African American and have black elected leadership, but they could face an uncertain future once an overhaul of the state’s municipal court’s system goes into effect.
At least two north St. Louis County elected officials say Ferguson’s relationship with its neighbors has been strained for a long time. Earlier this year, Normandy Mayor Patrick Green told St. Louis Public Radio that -- while Knowles was receptive to working with surrounding communities – some of the city’s full-time staffers were not.
“It’s about misguidedness of power,” Green said. “They thought 'we’re the bigger city, we have a $20 million budget – it’s call it like you see it in St. Louis. Segregated isolationism. Meaning, we’re silo-istic instead of being joined at the hip.”
State Rep. Courtney Curtis said one reason officials from other cities didn’t rush to help Ferguson was because they didn't trust the city’s leadership. Curtis, a Ferguson Democrat who went to high school with Knowles, said the mayor “has alienated a lot of the mayors around him because he wants to take them over.”
“You can’t expect people to come to the team when you’ve alienated them,” Curtis said.
But Knowles dismisses Curtis’ contentions as “ridiculous,” adding that some of the mayors of surrounding cities “came to my wedding.”
He said that “one of the biggest hurdles that Ferguson’s always had is being seen as the big brother that’s potentially going to take you over.” But Knowles pointed out that his city provides services to a number of surrounding towns.
“If you ask why communities didn’t jump on board or jump to help Ferguson, I mean you’re talking about ... an extremely sensitive hot-button issue that at the time was framed as police brutality,” Knowles said. “Nobody wants to get involved in this in a political situation that is unwinnable. There was no person, no politician – I don’t care who you are – that could win last August or September or October or November.”
Knowles theorized that when certain groups wanted to change the policy conversation “from an issue of Michael Brown and police brutality to traffic tickets and how cities run,” not many surrounding cities that take in higher percentages of traffic fine revenue than Ferguson are going “to come to your aid because now they’re in the limelight.”
“When you’re sitting there surrounded by communities – 20 to 30 communities – all of which whose numbers are worse than yours and you’re being called out by the attorney general of the United States as using police officers as revenue generators, who’s going to come out and protect you?” Knowles said. “I mean, to this day it sickens me when I sit there and watch videos of the attorney general of the United States in North County arm-and-arm and hugging mayors of communities.
“When he compares us to using police officers as revenue generators, look who you’re arm and arm with,” he added. “I mean, communities that do that.”
(While Knowles declined to “call anybody out," it should be noted though that Holder met with Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy when he was in north St. Louis County last August. Murphy’s city takes in about 30 percent of its revenue through fines and fees, according to Sen. Eric Schmitt's office.)
Echoing some of his fellow officials, Knowles said the response from local, state and national elected officials lacked cohesion – which he said presented “a huge problem.”
“I think it’s because often times it was akin to whatever individual people’s agendas were – or their own feelings. And it was very difficult,” Knowles said. “There are a lot of personal feelings. There are a lot of differing feelings based on who your constituencies are. But unfortunately, the group as a whole – the elected officials as a whole – never put all that aside and were able to sit in a room together and try to talk out some sort of regional leadership solution to what was going on.”
Danger on the horizon?
While Knowles and Curtis aren’t exactly the best of political allies these days, they do share a fairly low opinion of the municipal courts overhaul.
Both officials wondered aloud about why the bill wasn’t paired with an economic development strategy to provide vitality for an economic uneven part of St. Louis County.
“The people that are touting this as a win, ask them what the plan for North County is?” Curtis said. “Ask them what the long-term effect and impact of Senate Bill 5 are and what they’re willing to do. If they say anything, the next question is why didn’t you do that along with this? Because there’s a negative impact to the community, clearly, in terms of money. So what did you do to offset that damage to the community?”
Knowles sensed some irony in Senate Bill 5’s approach – especially since his city government was lambasted for lacking diversity when Michael Brown was shot.
“There’s like 300 city council members and mayors and school board members in the 1st County Council District alone. And the vast majority of them are African American,” Knowles said. “Senate Bill 5 and getting rid of all these cities will absolute decimate the number of African-American elected officials in the St. Louis region. And you’re going to replace it with one African-American county council person?"
“But even still, it does beg the question: Even if they all disincorporated, is St. Louis County going to come in and ensure that the rental properties are being kept up?” Knowles said. “The streets are being paved? That the policing in those areas are going to get the adequate attention that they need?”
St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones acknowledged that some African-American elected officials “fear that they will lose their position if their municipality goes away.” But the Democratic officerholder added: “The one thing they don’t see is they won’t lose who they are.”
“It’s just a position,” Jones said. “We weren’t meant to hold these positions for a lifetime. And what are you doing in that position to make people’s lives better? And we saw that time after time that the municipalities run by either whites or blacks were gouging people’s incomes on minor traffic violations. And that’s wrong. That’s simply wrong.
“I still think that we need to take a look at those who are still victims of the municipal court system,” she added. “We need to totally wipe the slate clean. I know that will have adverse effects for those municipalities who are due that revenue. But in my opinion, that’s blood money.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.