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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Ferguson Commission: Who Didn't Make It?

Bill Greenblatt, UPI

It’s an open question whether the Ferguson Commission will produce ground-breaking changes or a report that gathers dust on a shelf. 

But it’s indisputable that a lot of people wanted to be on the 16-person commission. According to a spreadsheet released by Gov. Jay Nixon’s office, more than 300 people from all corners of the state applied.

The applicants included elected officials, academics,  law enforcement professionals and ordinary citizens. Their reasons for applying varied, but many said they wanted to contribute to changing the region and state.

While we'll presumably be hearing and seeing a lot from the 16 people tapped for the commission, here’s a sampling from people who did not make the cut.

'Not isolated to the city of Ferguson'

Soon after Nixon announced he would form a commission, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said it would make sense for representatives of his city’s government to sit on the panel. He put his money where his mouth is — and applied.

After contending that the governor gave his city little notice he was creating a panel named after his city, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III applied to the commission.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
After contending that the governor gave his city little notice he was creating a panel named after his city, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III applied to the commission.

“The issues which have been raised by the shooting of Michael Brown are not new and are not isolated to the city of Ferguson,” wrote Knowles.

“I have been a resident of north St. Louis County for 35 years and I have been an active resident here my entire life,” he continued. “To have a thorough examination of the issues relating to the unrest, I believe it is necessary to have a strong understanding and historical knowledge of the institutions, governmental entities, laws, and policies in the north county area.”

One of Knowles’ counterparts — Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones — said he could contribute by showing how his city managed a difficult situation with law enforcement. Dellwood dissolved its police department and contracted with the St. Louis County Police Department.

“It is important to have an individual on the commission that not only is close to the situation, but who can also speak to what real solutions will look like,” Jones wrote.

St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed applied because it would offer “a unique opportunity for me to engage others, including elected officials, from around the region in a meaningful way and to take insights on the shared issues we face.”   

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed applied to the commission.

“My perspective should prove beneficial to the group and bring a new perspective to the table,” wrote Reed, noting he is the first African-American to be elected president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.  “I hope to use my platform to take the good works of the Ferguson Commission and the agreed upon policy and program prescriptions to neighborhoods and households in highest need.”

One of the more notable governmental officials who applied was soon-to-be former Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro. The former superintendent of the Hazelwood and Riverview Gardens school districts wrote that she wanted to join the commission because she “knows and loves these communities.”

“I care deeply about the children and families of north county and understand their concerns,” Nicastro said. “I am familiar with the issues — both real and perceived — of racism, social injustice, and inequity that are pervasive in the area.”

'Even benign laws can be discriminatory

St. Louis Police Officer Matthew Eaton was one of the applicants with experience in public safety. 

Police line the sidewalk in front of the Justice Center in Clayton Wednesday morning. 82014
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Law enforcement in the St. Louis region has come under scrutiny since Brown was shot and killed.

“We as Americans do our children a disservice by raising them in racially homogeneous neighborhoods and schools and stack the deck against them ever being anything other than ethnocentric,” he wrote.

“I'm aware that impoverished neighborhoods are policed differently, but I'm also aware that there are reasons for the disparity that are not racial animus,” added Eaton, a licensed attorney. “I'm painfully aware that even the most benign laws can be enforced in a manner that is wholly discriminatory and yet pass judicial scrutiny.”

Eric Prince — a Lee’s Summit native who is also a police officer — said he wanted to join the commission because he believed “what occurred in Ferguson was a combination of many factors brought together to create a horrible situation for everyone involved.”

“The history of the community combined with a great misunderstanding of what happened in the incident along with the police response led to events that could have been prevented,” Prince said. “I believe the way to overcome this incident and to prevent something similar in the future is to create a lasting partnership between local and county government and the community as a whole.”

Former St. Louis Fire Department Battalion Chief Paul Davis said he would have been an asset to commission because he has “experience in negotiating.”

“I believe the tasks at hand for this commission may be one of the most important endeavors, and problem solving bodies for this area and potentially our state that has occurred in my lifetime,” Davis said.

'Uniquely positioned to find solutions'

While plenty of businesspeople, attorneys and academics applied to the commission, the most poignant application may have been from the roughly 35 people who live in Ferguson. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson resident Nick Kasoff, left, speaks during a Ferguson City Council meeting. Kasoff, who ran against Knowles for the Ferguson City Council, was one of roughly 35 Ferguson residents who applied.

“Ferguson is not unique in the issues it faces, but we are uniquely positioned to find solutions, and to move our community forward in a way which others can emulate,” said Nick Kasoff, a landlord and business owner who ran against Knowles for the city council a few years ago.

Even though she participated in community forums and protests, De-Andrea Blaylock-Johnson wrote that she applied because she “wanted to do more to help rebuild my community.”

“I wept for Michael Brown and for my community, but felt powerless in my ability to positively affect change. The days following were extremely scary as my faith in the ability of those in power began to diminish and ultimately fade away,” wrote Blaylock-Johnson, who is a social worker. “I felt that I would have an opportunity to positively affect change if selected to participate.”

William Arman said he applied because of “his earnest desire to see the city progress, grow, and adapt to the changes for the future.”

“I want my city back and peace amongst its citizens. I also believe that the blinders need to be lifted from the root problems that exist amongst its citizens and those that have been placed in office,” Arman said. “The key is honesty! We must first start to address the issues internally before we can adjust the problems on the outside that shape our lives.”

Colleen Shehan wrote that she bought a house in Ferguson four years ago because of the town’s racial diversity. She went on to say “there are so many people who love this city and want to see it succeed.”

“I do not want to see this town fail because of misconceptions,” Shehan said. “While there are a multitude of racial disparities that run rampant in St. Louis and St Louis County, Ferguson was trying to buck that trend. I want people to see that side of Ferguson.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.