Ferguson's new council members take their oaths — and face tough challenges
Right after Ella James, Wesley Bell and Brian Fletcher were sworn in as new members of the Ferguson City Council, one of the legislative body’s veteran members provided some advice — both for his new colleagues and the people of Ferguson.
After the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death brought nationwide attention and scrutiny on the St. Louis County suburb, Councilman Dwayne James implored the new council members and the general public to be accountable.
He said it was the only way for the city to move forward after months of strife and scrutiny.
“Basically, be tough on us,” said Councilman Dwayne James. “It’s not just us seven, eight or 10 people on the dais that’s going to get this together. We need all of us to basically work on this. So as much as you’re going to be tough on me, I’m going to be tough on you as well. And we need that support. We need that work.”;
Indeed, the pressure is on the new council to make weighty decisions for the city.
The six-person council will have to hire a new city manager that will run Ferguson’s day-to-day operations. Council members will likely play a role in hiring a police chief and municipal court judge. And they’ll have to deal with a potential consent decree with the Department of Justice that could require costly changes to the city’s police department.
The council now has three African-American members — James, Jones and Bell. That comes after Ferguson’s government was roundly criticized for lacking diversity — even though two-thirds of the population is black. (Though it should be noted that Bell and Fletcher faced opposition from organizations aligned with protest groups.)
“Residents have asked for the council to look more like the population and demographics of the city,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, who is white. “People have asked for it to be more representative. And it is now. And I think it’s a wonderful development here.”
St. Louis Public Radio caught up with Bell, Fletcher and Jones before they were sworn in. They gave their take on the city’s challenges – and their visions for Ferguson’s future.
'A sense of hope'
Jones, a former Mary Kay saleswoman, says a big focus will be hiring a new city manager — the official that wields the most power within Ferguson. She said the council should look for a “a person who is conscientious of the people and keeping the people in mind.”
“Even though we know the city is a business and that they are there to run the business — (the person should) also be in favor of the people,” Jones said.
Jones also said:
- Council members are going to have to go “door-to-door” to keep people engaged in city government. “To re-establish trust, I believe we’re going to have to go and knock on doors. Engage people,” she said. “Let them know that we do care. We are listening to them.”
- She’s unsure about whether the city should enter into a consent decree with the Department of Justice. She wants to learn more about the process before formulating an opinion.
- She wants to get to know the city’s police officers — and how they do their jobs. “Some of us are going over to the police department during shift change so we can start introducing ourselves to them,” she said. “And they can begin to know us. And so that’s the beginning of it. Taking time to interact with each other, which will make a big difference.”
Fletcher served as Ferguson’s mayor from 2005 to 2011. And he said the biggest challenge for Ferguson would be coming up with a budget after months of unrest.
“We’re going to do some belt-tightening,” Fletcher said. “Reserves will help. But because of the unrest of the last eight to nine months, we’ve lost a lot of sales tax revenue. We’ve had a lot of overtime for our police officers. We’ve had a lot of additional legal fees. And then the DOJ’s findings are going to be costly to implement.”
Fletcher also said:
- Ferguson should enter into a consent decree with the Department of Justice. He added the hiring of a Chicago-based attorney could make such an arrangement less expensive for the city. “It has to happen. It’s the only way we can move forward quickly and it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re just trying to do it in the most economical means for the city, so our citizens will not suffer that much on the services they receive.”
- A consent decree will be expensive – and prompt a re-examination of the city’s fiduciary priorities. “What they want is not insurmountable. But the monitoring process that they require will be very expensive – and it will be in the millions of dollars,” he said. “And that will take away from the citizens getting their potholes filled. We’ll have to seek priorities that are very important to citizens with the money we do have.”
- He wants to see the city’s police department change its relationship toward citizens. “We want much more on-hands policing,” he said. “Meaning, on the street. Getting out of the cars. Talking to our citizens. Getting to know our community and getting the community to know our police officers. They should know them – hopefully by name – so they feel comfortable and trusted when they need them.”
'Perception that we are divided'
Bell is an attorney, a community college professor and a municipal court judge and prosecutor. For him, the most pressing priority is changing the mentality of the police department.
“It’s about creating partnerships,” Bell said. “And it’s about changing the mindset of how an officer perceives their job. They’re not just crime fighters. But part of their job — and it has to start from the top down — is getting out to know people.”
Bell also said:
- He wants to change the police department’s reputation for being overly focused on collecting revenue. “It’s not about how many tickets you write, it’s about how many people you know in the community,” he said. “Because that’s where that trust comes.”
- He wants to know more information before advocating for a consent decree. However, Bell said a damning Justice Department report should be a wake-up call. “I will not make a commitment before I know everything,” he said. “I will say this, I’ve read a lot of the DOJ report. And I think a lot of those recommendations are something we should take very seriously.”
- Adding more African-Americans to the council is “one small step. And I mean a baby step. ... I think it’s all about action,” he said. “And what are we going to do as a council. I intend to work with the other council persons on this council. And try and get some things done — starting with our courts, starting with our police department.”