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Rolla Voters Oust Five City Council Incumbents Over Mask Mandate

Moriah Renaud and Robert Kessinger both spoke up against mask mandates before the city council last year. They were also among a wave of candidates that unseated five people who voted in favor of ordinance.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Moriah Renaud and Robert Kessinger both spoke up against mask mandates before the city council last year. They were also among a wave of candidates that unseated five people who voted in favor of the ordinance.

Five Rolla City Council members who backed a mask mandate and capacity restrictions at businesses and churches will see their terms end Monday night as a slate that opposed the ordinance is sworn in.

One of the 50 people who testified against the mask mandate in November was Moriah Renaud. She told the council the move was an overreach and an infringement of freedom.

“I made the choice that I will live my life and not wear a mask. I am not anti-mask. I’m against mandating and fining individuals and businesses,” Renaud said during the meeting.

On Monday, she will be sworn in as a First Ward alderman on the council after beating incumbent Rachel Schneider earlier this month.

Looking back on the debate, Renaud said the mask mandate may have been a catalyst, but it also got some voters to look at the council more closely.

“People are concerned because we have issues of crime here in Rolla. We have real issues,” Renaud said. “And we’re sitting on city council talking about things like marijuana, we’re talking about sanctuary cities. We’re talking about things that people in the community could not care less about.”

Rolla, like every city in Missouri, had to create zoning rules on where medical marijuana dispensaries could locate, or else accept the state’s default position. And while there were discussions about decriminalizing marijuana and becoming a sanctuary city, they didn’t get far.

Robert Kessinger, another of the new council members who ran on a conservative platform and also spoke against the mask mandate at council meetings, said discussion on those issues led voters to want change.

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“I think people woke up because they realized that, hey, wait a second, I thought the city government just moved parking meters. We thought we just made new sidewalks. We thought we approved budgets for the police and everybody went on,” Kessinger said. “But we recognized that hey, we’ve got people on the council that don’t necessarily go along with our value system.”

Schneider said the mask mandate was important, but she sees the election differently. She said it was more the result of voters who supported Donald Trump in November taking their frustrations out at the polls in April’s municipal election.

“I think national politics got mapped on to that, and the levels of campaign expenditures really changed the dynamic than when I ran two years ago,” Schneider said.

The money came from the Invest in Rolla Political Action Committee. While the hundreds of dollars that went to several candidates may not seem like much, it’s a big departure from usual Rolla City Council elections that are funded by candidates themselves, often using homemade and recycled signs.

The Invest in Rolla slate of candidates of conservatives was in direct contrast to the Rolla For Progress slate, suggesting political parties. None of the Rolla For Progress Candidates won.

Sixth Ward Alderman Deane Lyons, the lone progressive still on the council who will run for reelection next year, said it wasn’t about money or parties. They said it was about the mask mandate.

“There were people emailing, calling, Facebook messaging, the comments. I mean it was day in and day out. I would say easily this was the most talked-about issue in our community for a long time,” Lyons said.

Lyons pointed out that Second Ward Alderman Matthew Crowell also was ousted, even though he had the support of Invest in Rolla and the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. He voted in favor of the mask mandate.

Lyons said while progressive candidates were soundly defeated in this election, the movement will continue.

“More people have contacted me saying that even though the positions were lost, the connections and the relationships and, again, just the feeling of not being alone in this town, that is still living on,” Lyons said. “And that, to me, is a win.”

And there will be another city council election next year, and a small group of voters can make a big difference. Only 11% of registered voters went to the polls in Rolla this year.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.