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Ferguson Mayor Says He Considered Resigning, Is Now Working To Unite Community

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Dec. 2, 2014, at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio

Since August, many people have been asking who’s in charge in Ferguson. Add James Knowles, the city’s mayor, to that list.

In an interview Tuesday with “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh, Knowles said he was kept out of the loop on state and regional efforts, including security and leadership decisions.

“That’s been one of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with this crisis,” he said. “Governor (Jay) Nixon showed up in Ferguson before he contacted us or let us know. There were people who helped me, some legislators in the region who helped me reach out to the governor’s office when we couldn’t get through to say we believe that me — as the local municipal official, the person who is on the ground being assumed to have control even though as a part-time, weak-mayor form of government I did not have that control — that I should be kept in the loop on some of these issues. Throughout this process there’s been varying degrees of how much I’ve been kept in the loop by many of the officials involved.”

A few hours after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced on Nov. 24 that the grand jury had declined to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, businesses were set on fire and looted in Ferguson and nearby Dellwood.

Nixon had declared an official state of emergency nearly a week earlier, authorizing the state’s National Guard to support police after the decision was announced. At a Nov. 25 news conference, Knowles criticized Nixon for not deploying National Guardsmen to help protect those businesses.

“From the beginning now, our chief has been part of the conversation and the planning with the unified command, though he’s not actually part of the unified command,” Knowles said Tuesday. “I’d been kept in the loop up until the actual day of the grand jury announcement (on what) we would expect to be the security situation on the ground.”

The plan as he knew it, Knowles said, included access to National Guard troops should the local police need them.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement officers needed that, they made the call, asked for the assistance (and) the National Guard was not readily available,” Knowles said. “By the time they were deployed, damage had already been done to the city of Dellwood and the city of Ferguson.”

Looking ahead, Knowles said there are still questions about who’s in charge, starting with the Ferguson Commission that Nixon recently announced. Many in the community are not sure what the commission’s purpose is, he said, and protesters have complained that its 16 members do not represent the average Ferguson or St. Louis resident.

“There’s also confusion over whether or not the committee is going to be focused on Ferguson, or it’s going to be focused on broader issues,” Knowles said. “I don’t know that I need nine, 10, 15 people from outside the community to tell us (how to reform), but there are larger systemic issues and I think those are issues that we need to have a broader conversation about in the region and the state.”

Those issues include allocation of resources for education and housing availability, he said.

President Barack Obama held a series of meetings Monday in Washington, D.C., related to Ferguson, including meetings with elected officials, law enforcement leaders and young civil rights leaders. Knowles said it’s time for Obama to visit Ferguson.

“I think he should definitely see this first-hand,” Knowles said. “(But) I would hate to see somebody come here, talk to a half dozen people and say that they understood what happened here. It’s going to take a long time to understand what happened here.”

‘There’s Things We Could Do Better’

Many have second-guessed decisions Knowles and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson have made since the Aug. 9 shooting, including Knowles.

“I’m always a believer that there’s things we could do better. I’m sure, as we continue to move forward, that we’re going to look back and really examine the things we did and whether or not we could have done some of them better. I think what’s been most frustrating over the past 110, (120) days or so (is) that there’s so many decisions we’ve made that we knew there would be a backlash or a problem either way. It’s really hard to look back and say would we have been better off taking the backlash from making decisions the other way? Those are answers that I don’t know we’ll ever really get.”

Knowles said he even thought about resigning at one point.

“There was obviously a time in which I sat back and considered would the city be better served if I resigned,” Knowles said. “Clearly, I believe that my place and my service to the community would be here as the mayor, and that’s what I’ve continued to do.”

The mayor said he remained in office to try to address problems in the community.

“My goal from the beginning was to do anything and everything in my power to reach out to the community, the citizens in our community and the people who felt like our Ferguson Police Department, specifically, that there was some issue there with our department,” he said. “I still tried on the ground to work with as many stakeholders in the community and the region to try to keep us together here.”

Knowles recently announced an effort to try to restore confidence in the Ferguson Police Department, which includes the creation of a civilian police review board, school outreach and a scholarship program to sponsor black men and women in the police academy.

“Nobody paid attention to all of the things Ferguson has done for the past 120 years, but from here on out they will,” Knowles said. “They’ve seen the worst, but they haven’t seen the best of Ferguson, and I think that’s still to come.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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