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Ferguson, Justice Department officials report progress in negotiations

Ferguson City Councilmembers Brian Fletcher, Ella Jones and Wesley Bell take their oaths of office on Tuesday.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

Ferguson city officials said they are "optimistic" that they will reach a deal with the U.S. Justice Department to overhaul the city's police department and change other policies.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department said in a statement that negotiations have been "productive." The two entities have been working to come to an agreement to remedy a pattern and practice of racial discrimination by city police that federal investigators reported last March.

"The department believes that in order to remedy the Justice Department's findings an agreement needs to be reached without delay," its statement read.

Media reports indicated that a deal for a possible consent decree was near, but a statement from the city Wednesday indicated no one there would comment on "an ongoing legal matter" or on a timeline. But Mayor James Knowles in a brief telephone conversation said a "tremendous amount of progress" had been made.

City Councilman Wesley Bell said he's confident a deal will be reached that "will be in the best interest not only of the city, but also the residents."

But he said one sticking point is whether residents will get to weigh in on an agreement, though he acknowledged that in the course of the negotiations with the Justice Department, not all details can be made public.

"Prior to any final agreement, it’s important to the council that residents do have an opportunity to be heard and to give feedback, because our residents will be most affected by this, by this agreement," he said. It was for this reason, Bell said, the council sent a letter recently to the Justice Department expressing its concerns about opportunities for public input, an issue echoed by Knowles.

Ferguson City Manager De'Carlon Seewood
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson City Manager De'Carlon Seewood

Ferguson's new city manager De'Carlon Seewood said in an interview earlier this weekwith St. Louis Public Radio that residents will have that opportunity to share their views.

"If we get to a point where the council passes the consent decree, then it still has to go before a judge, and in that process when it goes before a judge there’s a fairness hearing, so during that fairness hearing, there will be opportunities for citizens to weigh in on what’s been proposed, what's been talked about," he said.

It is also important that residents get transparent information about the costs of a potential deal, Bell said.

"There’s some changes and reforms that we want to implement, which I can say we have already started on, so yeah, cost will be a factor, obviously," he said. "So to say we could agree to something and just have blank checks would be foolhardy and not in the best interest of the city."

Still, Bell said he doesn't see negotiations as "adversarial."

"We are all on the same page, we all want to get an agreement and see certain changes be implemented," he said. "But just being perfectly honest, it's not done until it's done. We don’t have an agreement until we have an agreement."

Bell said any potential consent decree will include at least two policies Ferguson has already begun working on: improving community policing and court reform.

"One of my big issues from the very beginning is pushing community policing, something the city started without the decree, but obviously any agreement would memorialize that so we could further that particular endeavor, as well as court reform," he said.

Mary Delach Leonard and Jim Howard contributed to this report.

Follow Stephanie Lecci on Twitter: @stephlecci.