Fight over Missouri municipal court law didn't start overnight
Viola Murphy can’t afford a new sidewalk for her town. For now, she’ll have to settle for a grassy path created with the imprints of pedestrians.
Murphy is the mayor of Cool Valley, a 1,200-person north St. Louis County municipality that borders Ferguson and Normandy. She was able to get a federal grant to create a sidewalk along one side of South Florissant Road. But because of a new state law that caps traffic fine revenue, her city can’t afford the match for the other side.
That may not seem like a big deal. But as we drive through her city, people trudge on the shoulder of the road carrying large grocery bags. Murphy says this situation isn’t safe – especially since the walkers are facing away from traffic coming onto South Florissant Road from Interstate 70.
“What it means to me is: I’m the mayor of this city and my job is to keep everybody safe,” Murphy said. “This is not a safe situation. What we’ve been trying to do is work on the infrastructure of improvement. It’s a safety issue. I don’t care what county, B.T. Rice or whoever. They don’t live here. They don’t see what we see.”
Murphy is one of a dozen municipal leaders fighting a wide-ranging overhaul of municipal governance. She and other city leaders emphasize that the issue isn’t the lost revenue – but fairness. They think it’s unconstitutional and unfair for St. Louis County cities to have harsher traffic fine restrictions than the rest of the state.
This fight was the subject of a story today on NPR’s Morning Edition. And it’s more than just a story about a legal challenge – it’s about how African-American-led cities fit into the St. Louis region and how they’ve clashed with advocates of municipal consolidation.
Here are links to stories about this long-running battle, which stretch back before Michael Brown was shot and killed:
When a group called Better Together formed to examine the possibility of a city-county merger, some of the loudest critics were leaders of small cities in north St. Louis County.
And while Better Together's leaders felt the region's multitude of municipalities were redundant and unnecessary, many felt the discussion was an attack on small government – and on African-American political power.
“Unfortunately in the St. Louis area, with our history here, it is racial to a great extent and it is class to a certain extent,” said then-Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston. “We have that problem pretty bad in the St. Louis area. Black, white thing. North, south thing. There’s always been this battle of perceptions with regard to ‘if it’s black and if it’s north, it’s got to be worse.’ And it’s just not true.”
After the shooting death of Michael Brown, national publications like the Washington Post turned their attention to municipal courts in north St. Louis County.
That prompted some state policymakers to declare their support at looking at the percentage of traffic fine revenue cities could incorporate into their budgets.
“Courts have got to start treating these people as people with real-life problems,” said Thomas Harvey, an attorney with Arch City Defenders. “That’s one of the primary concerns our clients have: Nobody’s listening to them when they say ‘I’m not scofflaw. I’m not a criminal. I’m a poor person who’s having a hard time making these fines.’ And when our clients hear from judges, ‘I don’t care; give us the money,’ that sends the wrong message and it destroys the political capital that they otherwise could build for their communities.”
Right before the 2015 legislative session began, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, introduced a bill that lowered the percentage of traffic fine revenue cities could keep from 30 percent to 10 percent. “A lot of municipal courts are being used as revenue generation,” he said during an episode of the Politically Speaking podcast.
Schmitt’s bill resumed talk of municipal consolidation in St. Louis County, which alarmed African-American mayors.
“We are all voted in by the people of our cities that believe in our leadership,” said Murphy at a January St. Louis County Council meeting. “People are making decisions concerning our cities without even having a conversation with any of us before decisions are being made.”
During the legislative process, Schmitt’s bill made it significantly easier for cities to potentially disincorporate if they ran afoul of the state’s traffic fine caps.
“People get to decide,” Schmitt said. “They get the ultimate decision on the death penalty for your city if you’re in violation. If people think you should continue on, you still have to hand over that excess to schools. Or they may say ‘we’ve had enough of this and we want to weigh in.’
When the Department of Justice issued a scathing report of Ferguson Police Department, some openly wondered if any federal action would make much difference without going after other law enforcement agencies. After all, cities like Wellston and Pine Lawn had well-publicized problems with governance and policing.
“I think the DOJ wants this report to spark local change,” said St. Louis Alderman Antonio French “But knowing the dynamics of St. Louis County and the state legislature like we do, the DOJ is going to have to stay and extend their investigation beyond the city of Ferguson.”
Schmitt’s bill ultimately passed, but it included different traffic revenue caps for St. Louis County and the rest of the state. County cities could only incorporate 12.5 percent of traffic fine revenue into their budgets, compared to 20 percent for the rest of the state.
Even though the policy push was inspired by the Ferguson unrest, these restrictions won’t actually affect the city of Ferguson that much. Instead, it will substantially impact African-American-led towns in north St. Louis County.
“If we just look at the race of people in the towns it affects more, I think we can certainly make a case for discrimination just based on who was carved out of this,” said state Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, who voted against Schmitt’s bill.
Schmitt came back on the Politically Speaking podcast to break down the different aspects of his municipal governance overhaul -- including the caps on traffic fine revenue. He also responded to criticism that the bill would hurt African-American-led cities.
“My goal was trying to right some wrongs for the people that live in those communities,” he said. “When you see long lines of people waiting to get into a municipal court at 10 o’clock at night next to a pawn shop – it shocks the conscience.”
Earlier this summer, Murphy and Normandy Mayor Patrick Green expounded upon their opposition to the traffic fine revenue caps on an edition of the Politically Speaking podcast.
Green said out of the 25 African-American municipalities, there are only four or five that are doing “inappropriate things.”
“Does that taint all 25 or 30? No,” he said.
A couple months after Gov. Jay Nixon signed Schmitt's bill into law, a dozen predominantly black municipalities filed a lawsuit against the measure.
Among other things, the suit took aim at the dual traffic revenue standard.
“They’re the ones who are targeted,” said David Pittinsky, an attorney who helped file the case on behalf of the cities. “And I feel very strongly that they should be represented -- and represented as effectively as possible in this fight to have this bill declared unconstitutional. Again, I point out to you that had the General Assembly passed a bill that applied to all 114 counties and had them all at 20 percent and had provided all the funding for all the new responsibilities, I probably wouldn’t be here."
After a series of articles about municipal ordinance violations in Pagedale, Schmitt proposed expanding the new law to restrict cities’ ability to take in non-traffic revenue fines.
Schmitt said it was “unconscionable cities would use fine money — whether from traffic tickets or silly violations like the location of one’s barbecue grill or the way their blinds are hanging — to prop up bloated bureaucracies.” But municipal leaders like Murphy contended her citizens want cities to spruce up unsightly properties.
Meanwhile in St. Louis County, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger shuttled legislation through the county council that required municipal police departments to adhere to training, hiring and operational standards.
Despite lawsuit threats from small and large municipalities, the legislation passed the county council and is currently being litigated in court. Stenger, though, says it was the right thing to do.
“It’s not something new. I think it’s a situation that existed for decades,” Stenger said. “And it’s time that it be fixed. And certainly, these standards do challenge the status quo. But that’s what change is all about. And this is a change that I think our community desperately needs.”