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Meacham Park resident quits mediation team appointed after Kirkwood shootings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association has resigned from the Justice Department Mediation Team that was appointed in the wake of the Feb. 7, 2008, Kirkwood City Hall murders that left five city officials dead. The team is preparing to deliver its report next month.

Harriet Patton, a long-time activist in Meacham Park, said she resigned last month 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." Meacham Park is a mostly African-American neighborhood in Kirkwood.

In her Sept. 14 letter of resignation, Patton wrote, "After many meetings and much discussion and careful consideration, I have concluded that this process has little or no possibility of forging a consensus on reasonable and necessary actions for the future."

A spokesman for the Justice Department team said he was unable to comment on Patton's resignation or the team's progress because its discussions are confidential.

The team released a statement by the Rev. David Bennett, minister at Kirkwood United Methodist Church and a community member of the team. He said, "everyone on the team appreciates the important contribution Harriet Patton made while serving on the team. Her passion for justice and persistence for change has helped to bring awareness to the needs of the community."

Bennett continued, "I believe much progress is being made and that there will be substantive changes. The ... teams are finding common ground on important issues."

Mayor Art McDonnell, one of the city officials on the team, said in an interview this month that he wishes the Justice Department had decided early on that there was no need for the mediation process.

McDonnell said "we really don't have a race problem." City Hall murderer, Charles "Cookie" Thornton, was motivated by personal financial problems rather than race, he said.

Since his election as mayor a few months after the killings, McDonnell has been credited with opening lines of communication to the entire community. He regularly talks with citizens before city council meetings and has removed the three-minute rule that had limited the time that citizens could speak before council sessions.

McDonnell said he couldn't go into detail about Patton's complaints because of the confidentiality agreement. But he said she was unhappy that the mediation team did not reinvestigate old complaints from about a dozen residents of Meacham Park concerning the way their homes had been rehabilitated during the redevelopment of the neighborhood that began about a decade ago.

McDonnell said that the city had previously looked into the complaints of the residents and they had signed statements saying they were satisfied.

Patton, who also said she felt constrained by the confidentiality agreement, said she had presented the list of unhappy residents to the city several years ago but officials had not adequately investigated them. She said she had not gone back to the residents to see if they were still unhappy, but she thought the city should have made a formal audit of the way the complaints were handled.

Patton said that the residents' complaints were not the main reason that she resigned from the team. The main reason, she said, was "Kirkwood's unwillingness to acknowledge that there is a problem, that is a difficult problem. The lack of awareness of white privilege is a dream come true in Kirkwood. Our public officials seem not to have a reality check when it comes to racism in Kirkwood. We could hardly even mention his (Thornton's) name."

In the months after the Feb. 7 murders, the Justice Department offered to come to Kirkwood to facilitate discussions between the city and members of the community. The Justice Department's Community Relations Service offers to mediate community disputes, particularly ones involving race.

The city accepted the offer to address "issues and tensions present in the community and to produce a written document setting forth constructive remedies or solutions."

Under the process, a city team and a community team met to discuss problems and solutions. William Whitcomb, in the Justice Department's Kansas City office, has overseen the process. C. J. Larkin, a lecturer at Washington University Law School in alternative dispute resolution, also has been working with the team.

The community team, consisted of Rev. Bennett, Lois Bliss, Rev. Vernon Gundermann, Ron Hodges, Charles Howard , Cynthia Isaac and Patton. After several meetings in the late 2008 and early 2009, the community team began meeting with the city team in April 2009. The city team is McDonnell, Chief Administrative Officer Mike Brown, Police Chief Jack Plummer, Assistant Chief Operating Officer Georgia Ragland, and Councilmember Iggy Yuan.

Several of the remaining members of the community team were heavily involved in last year's meetings held by the Community for Understanding and Healing, now called the Community for Understanding and Hope (CFUH). Hodges, Bliss and Bennett have been active in the group.

The meetings of CFUH focused on communications problems between the city and citizens and on racial issues involving the Meacham Park neighborhood.

Here is the full statement of Rev. David Bennett on behalf of the Justice Department Team:

Thank you for your interest regarding the status of the U.S. DOJ MediationTeam work in Kirkwood.  I would like to comment on the progress made and your interest in the resignation of Harriet Patton from the Community Team.  Unfortunately I cannot at this time as both Community and City Teams have made a commitment to confidentiality.

I would say that everyone on the team appreciates the important contribution Harriet Patton made while serving on the team.  Her passion for justice and persistence for change has helped to bring awareness to the needs of the community.  She will be missed as an important contributor.  I am confident she will continue to work for this important cause.

I would like to talk with you about the progress being made between the Community and the City Teams in the near future.  I believe much progress is being made and that there will be substantive changes.  The two teams are finding common ground on important issues.  I believe a report will be available in November.

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.