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Where candidates for Ferguson mayor stand on issues of safety, budget, DOJ compliance and more

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles chats with a supporter ahead of canvassing; Councilwoman Ella Jones greets people at a restaurant. On Monday, March 27, Knowles and Jones will participate in a mayoral forum ahead of the April 4 election.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III talks with a canvasser; Councilwoman Ella Jones greets people at a restaurant. On Monday, March 27, Knowles and Jones will participate in a mayoral forum ahead of the April 4 election.

On Wednesday's St. Louis on the Air we aired highlights of the Ferguson Mayoral Forum held earlier this week at the Ferguson Community Center. Incumbent Mayor James Knowles III and Councilwoman Ella Jones are on the ballot for the April 4 nonpartisan election in Ferguson and both participated.

The event was sponsored by St. Louis on the Air and The Center for Social Empowerment.

Host Don Marsh moderated the discussion and St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum asked additional questions.

Below, you’ll find the entirety of the audio from the event and some of the candidates’ summarized answers to questions posed both by St. Louis Public Radio journalists and audience members. A coin was tossed to determine the order of candidates’ opening and closing statements. 

Opening statements:

Jones: “I’m a 40-year resident of Ferguson, council member for Ward I and mayor pro tem. I ask that you keep an open mind as we go to the last days of this campaign. I believe that you are very sincere and you want the best for your community. I know I want the same.

“This election is not about James Knowles. It is not about Ella Jones. It is about how we can move our city forward and be inclusive of everyone. This is about whether we break away from the image and reputation of our city as divided, unwilling to change and grow or we remain as a symbol of oppression and regression.

“We have a City Manager, talented staff and, despite the mayor’s insults, a very sharp City Council who has as a team worked to govern our city. The mayor must be someone a person can trust, someone a person can believe in and can inspire trust in others around the region. If we are to sincerely grow, the mayor must inspire trust around the country. The mayor role is not symbolic but the mayor is a symbol and right now our symbol is one of division and racism.”

Knowles: “I’ve been a resident here in the city of Ferguson for 37 years. During that time I’ve been a long-time volunteer, starting at a young age including when I came back from college, came back from working in Jefferson City at the State Capitol. I decided to run for City Council and at the young age of 25, I served as the youngest member ever to hold office in the City of Ferguson.

“After six years serving on the City Council, an opportunity arose when Brian Fletcher decided not to seek a third term. I stepped up to that role, hopefully bringing a new generation of leadership to that role. During my six years in office, it has been the most tumultuous time in the history of Ferguson: two tornados, a prolonged history of unrest from 2014 on. I’ve spent the entirety of my time in the office working to bring this community together, to rebuild what had been damaged and destroyed and inspire hope and reconciliation here in this community.

“I’ve been accused of many things by many people and I believe most people who know me know those things are not true. I’ve dedicated myself in service of every member of this community, whether coaching wrestling at McCluer South-Berkeley High School, volunteering as a member of the Ferguson Lions Club, raising money and giving out tens of thousands of dollars a year to neighborhood groups and community associations. Regardless of what people may say about me, people should take the opportunity to meet me and understand what I’ve done for the community. I don’t do it for myself, the pay and certainly not the glamour or the glitz. I do it for you and I’d like to continue to do that over the next three years.”

Question from reporter Jason Rosenbaum: What will you do as mayor to make sure Ferguson stays on track with a federal consent decree that was agreed to last year and adhere to principles even after it goes away?

Jones pointed to her experience in the past, collaborating with the Department of Justice. Last week, she said, she went to court and the Department of Justice spoke about a grant she collaborated with several members of city government to claim for Ferguson in the amount of $250,000, which went to procuring two additional police officers and police training. She also drew attention to her work with Washington University interns who will be running community forums to get feedback from the community on the consent decree and to her past experience walking the Ferguson Police Chief around Ferguson neighborhoods.

Knowles pointed to his experience as part of the original negotiating team on the consent decree, saying that he was integral in procuring that $250,000 grant by asking the Department of Justice to give preference to Ferguson. He said an important element of moving forward with the consent decree would be to hold staff accountable for compliance, by creating charts and regular updates about the status of meeting deadlines. He wants to plan through every deadline in the decree so that no more deadlines are missed and ensure due diligence is made by the government in understanding the content of decree and pushing people along to comply with it.

Question from reporter Jason Rosenbaum: My colleague Rachel Lippmann has recently reported that federal deadlines for the consent decree have not been met and that the timeline is not going as planned. How do you react to that and how will you make sure that doesn’t continually happen?

Knowles said that when Ferguson was initially trying to comply with Department of Justice deadlines, the city was understaffed in the police department and City Hall. This meant key staff members who were tasked with implementing the decree were not in place to do it. “What we’ve been able to do with those hurdles is make up those deadlines,” Knowles said. “We’re down almost 20 officers in the police department. We’re down half of the staff in City Hall.” Knowles also said that the federal government has been gracious about missed deadlines and what the city has been able to accomplish at its size.

Jones said that the majority of compliance with the consent decree is writing a lot of policies. Now that Ferguson was able to hire Police Commander Frank McCall, that frees Police Chief Delrish Moss to write those policies. Jones also said it was important to bring in outside assistance when there isn’t enough man power on staff to comply.

Question from audience member Gerry: Proposition A on the ballot seeks to the change city charter and add requirements for use of body cameras by police department. What are your thoughts about Prop A?

Knowles said that one of the things he did in 2014 was implement the use of body cameras following the police shooting death of Michael Brown. He said he pushed for and upgraded equipment. He said there are concerns about the proposition because record release and retention of records are not fully fleshed out to ensure privacy, but that it was important to pursue technology like this.

Jones said that the police body cameras would protect both the resident and the police officer, but that officers also need to be encouraged to keep the body cameras on. She said it was important to have up-to-date equipment and state-of-the-art equipment as well.

Question from host Don Marsh: Quickly, do you support Proposition P, which would bring additional funding to St. Louis County Police?

Jones: Yes.

Knowles: Yes.

Councilwoman Ella Jones and Incumbent Mayor James Knowles answer questions during a Ferguson Mayoral Forum, held on March 27, 2017 at the Ferguson Community Center.
Credit Mary Edwards | St. Louis Public Radio
Councilwoman Ella Jones and Incumbent Mayor James Knowles answer questions during a Ferguson Mayoral Forum, held on March 27, 2017 at the Ferguson Community Center.

Question from audience member Barbara: What can we do to make Ferguson a safe place for everyone and what programs can you suggest to make it so?

Jones said her focus was on community policing, and getting police out of their cars and talking to people but that police can’t do it by themselves. She wants to see more residents join neighborhood associations to look out for their neighbors and report on crime to police officers.

Knowles said his emphasis was also on community policing, but that first means restocking the ranks of police officers in the Ferguson Police Department, which would help officers to get out of their cars and talk to people. He wants to redouble efforts to fund an Officer Academy program that puts officers through police training because that garners a three year commitment to the Ferguson Police Department. So far, two officers have gone through the program and, as of this April, four more will be enrolled. He also proposes investing in technologies such as “ShotSpotter,” which would identify where gunshots happen in the Ferguson area, and growing the number of street cameras used around Ferguson.

Question from reporter Jason Rosenbaum: Some people think that the Mayor of Ferguson is a supernatural, all-powerful leader when, in reality, the City Manager runs the day-to-day operations. Should that arrangement remain or should the mayor have more control?

Knowles said that he went to graduate school in order to become a city manager. “I don’t believe that an elected official should be the person who runs the city day-to-day.,” he said. “We as a City council should be engaging qualified staff to run the city day-to-day. The reason for that is to take a favoritism, nepotism and concerns about the politics of government away. … This city is a multi-million dollar corporation. You should not hire someone off the street with no experience to run it day-by-day or just because they happened to be voted in.”

Jones, on the other hand, advocates for the mayor to take a larger role in the city manager’s decisions, working parallel on who to hire, because when things go wrong or right, people look to the mayor as the symbol of the city. “When the council was ready to hire the new Chief of Police, there was a format we went through and a citizen’s review,” Jones said. “However, the last decision was deemed by the city manager. We should have had more input in that. That should be the case for the director of finance or anyone the city manager hires.”

Question from host Don Marsh: How will you restore the public image of Ferguson? President Trump most recently referred to it one of the most dangerous cities in the country and perhaps the world.

Jones said: “Donald Trump does not know Ferguson. Calling us the most dangerous city in America was ludicrous. We are a people that take pride in who we are. We are a people, a working people, who live with one another. And for him to say that about Ferguson was ridiculous. When he came to debate at Wash U, he did not care enough to come see kids playing in the playground or seniors walking up and down the street.”

Knowles said: “Donald Trump is not the first person to say something ludicrous about Ferguson. But what I’ve tried to make sure I’ve done is that anyone that has, instead of treating them with disdain I treat them with an invitation to come here. We’ve been fortunate to have now-HUD secretary Ben Carson to come here. We’d love to have Donald Trump. Here’s the issue: you can boo him, you can complain, I didn’t vote for him, but if you want to dispel these myths you have to have the people who are spreading this negativity come and learn better. The only way you’ll change those misconceptions is if you bring those with misconceptions here to come here first hand.”

Question from reporter Jason Rosenbaum: Senate Bill 5, which deals with the percentage of fine revenue cities are allowed to keep, did not affect Ferguson that much, but it affected surrounding cities. What did you make of these efforts? Would you support efforts to legally strike down?

Jones said that Senate Bill 5 was a two-part bill and that one part dealt with the courts. At one time, municipalities were able to collect about 30 percent of their revenue and then it went to 20 percent. Municipalities in north county were only able to collect 12 percent. She said she started working with the Municipal League to make the percentage equal for everyone. “It is important we don’t build our revenue off the backs of people by ticketing them, but we do want people who break traffic laws to be ticketed,” Jones said.

Knowles said that since September 2014, the City of Ferguson has made reforms to its own court system, which were later copied by Senate Bill 5. He said the bill had a lot more than two provisions and that three provisions were later struck down. One of those was that St. Louis County was given a percentage of 12.5 percent and the rest of the state had 20 percent. Another was the requirement that all police departments become accredited and that cities had to report on how much money cities got from fines and forfeitures. “The lawsuit struck down those provisions,” Knowles said. “That was funded by the City of Ferguson because the City Council and Ms. Jones voted to give money to support that lawsuit. … It was done almost in secret, it was a terrible mistake to do and frankly it explicitly violates our consent decree. … I believe strongly in court reforms and police reforms and I’m proud Ferguson had originally led on those issues.”

Jones said that other municipalities brought a lawsuit against Senate Bill 5 to the municipal league for funding for the lawsuit. “It was brought to the Ferguson City Council to see if we wanted to help them in that lawsuit and the council agreed on it; it is not only me, it is the council,” Jones said. “We agreed to help them with that.”

Knowles said that he voted on no on aiding the lawsuit. “We can’t talk about not wanting to go backwards and then give money so we can get more money from poor and disenfranchised people through ticketing,” he said.

Question from reporter Jason Rosenbaum: Can you reflect on how you will meet challenges for the budget?

Knowles said that he has more than a layman’s knowledge of government and finance through his graduate education. He said he was the one to come up with the idea to change Ferguson from a “point of sale” city to a “pool city,” bringing in $600,000 to the city to work away at the city’s deficit. He said that level of knowledge on budget, planning effectively and noting what would be the greatest return on investment would be critical going forward.

Jones said that the budget had just been balanced but for years before it was out of control. She pointed specifically to a contract with an investor that the city came up short on paying back as an example of poor planning. Knowles said that was because the County Assessor devalued a business district and the money from that TIF disappeared, which is what would have paid the investor back. Jones contended that the city’s finance director not knowing about these happenings as an example of poor planning.

Closing statements:

Jones: “Thank you for coming out tonight. The mayor said he wants to finish what he started: I don’t know what it is. It is time for Ferguson to get a fresh start. We need to start fresh. It is going to take all of us coming together. I’ve walked this neighborhood and I’ve heard what the residents want. I’ve heard from a senior citizen, when she opened her door, she’s too scared to come out of her house. I’ve heard from a citizen who wants her road fixed and it hasn’t been fixed for the past five years.

“It’s time for a fresh start. For a fresh start, you need leadership they can believe in. People want more than they’re getting and its time we give them a good quality of life, good leadership. That’s why I ask you to vote for me on April 4.”

Knowles: “I can’t believe that someone who has lived here 40 years hasn’t seen we’ve done anything in this community. I’ve lived here for 37 of it. I can tell you that the transformation on areas like South Florissant Road has been tremendous. The fact of the matter is that we’ve done constantly a tremendous amount that has superseded what neighbors have been able to do: the economic development we’ve brought in, the balancing of our budget. We haven’t kicked the can down the road, we had an unbalanced budget during the unrest and that’s it. Before that we had an 80 percent budget surplus, a tremendous feat for a community in North County. Where others have been in the red, we’ve been consistently in the black as far budget goes.

“I can tell you time and time again that everything we’ve done in this community has far exceeded expectations of many north St. Louis communities. The work we’re doing now on West Florissant Road goes back six years to the beginning of my mayoral administration. We’ve made tremendous strides in this community. We’ve had tremendous setbacks, unfortunately, during my time in office. We’ve pushed through, we’ve rebuilt: tornadoes, unrest, you name it, economic downturns. We’re still here, still strong and still showing people that a vibrant, strong community can and does exist in north St. Louis County. You need continued experience and leadership to make sure that continues to happen as we work to move this community forward together. That’s why I continue to ask for your support.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.