Ferguson mayor James Knowles III said he thought Tuesday night's city council meeting -- which consisted of nearly three straight hours of angry and resentful comments toward himself and the board of aldermen -- went better than he expected. One of the first things that set the crowd off was the announcement that, though everyone in attendance would be allowed to speak for three minutes, no one on the dais would be responding to questions.
"We never do that at those meetings. It's a regular business meeting," he told Daily RFT yesterday evening by phone. "We wanted to be able to make sure everyone got their piece in. Myself and others definitely took a lot of notes. There are people I'll get back with directly and personally."
Knowles said in addition to issuing some kind of FAQ release with a series of answers to repeated questions about the investigation, why officer Darren Wilson and Chief Thomas Jackson were not fired, and other oft-heard concerns, he will be continuing to refine the raft of changes to the city's municipal code which were announced Tuesday night. He shared a bit with Daily RFT about how those changes were drafted, and answered other questions about Michael Brown and officer Wilson.
Knowles, the city's 35-year-old, part-time mayor who works as a manager for a waste-management company, said he, other members of the council and the city attorney came up with the changes to the municipal code after speaking with many groups including clergy, Saint Louis University and Washington University law professors, neighborhood groups and other Ferguson constituents.
He said he and the city's attorney drafted the language for the proposed citizen review board by researching what neighboring municipalities have on the books. As the language states now, the citizen review board "shall advise the Mayor, City Council, City Manager, and Chief of Police on any and all matters relating to the operation of the department of public safety" and will consist of seven members, "2 citizens from each ward of the City, plus the mayor or his/her designee, and a member of the City Council. The Chief of Police shall be a non-voting ex-officio member of the board and shall attend all meetings of the board." (Scroll to the end of this post for full text of all the proposed bills.)
Knowles said he hopes to provide training for the citizen members of the review board and possibly somehow include professors from the University of Missouri-St. Louis for their "technical assistance." He also said he has reached out to the National Association of Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement for more guidance.
"I really hope that we become the kind of the leader in the region on this issue," he said.
The other proposed changes to city law include (again, full text at the bottom of the post):
"We're taking this seriously. We know we're going to have a tighten our belt. We have a reserve account we'll have to dip into for this," said Knowles. "We don't want people to think we're planning our community's success based on court fines."
According to the city's 2014-2015 budget, there is currently a $7.9 million reserve which will be used to make up for lost revenue.
Asked whether or not he'd given consideration to the proposal by the ArchCity Defenders to grant a broader "amnesty," remitting all outstanding fines and warrants for non-violent offenses and pardoning those who are still awaiting review, Knowles said he has been told neither he nor the city council has that authority. He said that the month-long warrant recall period he announced Tuesday night is the next best thing. Those with active warrants will be able to come to city hall and work out new court dates and payment plans from September 15 to October 15.
(Daily RFT reached out to ArchCity Defender attorney Thomas Harvey to see what he made of Knowles assessment. He wrote back, "Our position, and that of SLU Law's, is that whether or not the mayor has this express power (and we think he does), there are ways to accomplish the goals of a warrant recall and fine forgiveness." Click through to page two of this post for Harvey's full response and a letter written by the SLU Law Clinic enumerating ways Ferguson could still forgive warrants and fines.)
And Knowles said not all his constituents love the idea of forgiving everyone's fines -- like the ones who've already paid theirs.
"We're not giving anybody a pass," said Knowles. "We want to work with people. People have different means. We're trying to help them, and I think this is a good first step."
He also said that he did not know officer Wilson well, despite the fact he worked for the city for six years, and had to be shown a picture to recall who he was.
"When they told me the name Darren Wilson, I said, 'Who the hell is that?'" said Knowles. "Over the years the six years he's been here I've never had a complaint, personally, about him."
Finally, Daily RFT asked Knowles for his perspective on the racial divide in Ferguson (he had previously gotten himself in hot water by stating and then doubling down on the notion that "there is no racial divide" in Ferguson).
"There's an underlying frustration I didn't know about, and maybe that's not something everyone is comfortable talking about. I have a lot of black friends who, we talk about all kinds of things and this, maybe when we talk about this, this maybe opens up a scab that maybe they don't want to talk about," he said. "Just because we don't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist...from now on I will be much more aware."
Scroll down for full text of the proposed municipal code changes.
After the jump, a response from ArchCity Defenders on the concept of a warrant amnesty in Ferguson.
Here's the full response from attorney Harvey in regard to warrant amnesty in Ferguson:
Our position, and that of SLU Law's, is that whether or not the mayor has this express power (and we think he does), there are ways to accomplish the goals of a warrant recall and fine forgiveness.
Clerks recall warrants upon an attorney's entry of appearance on the case routinely in Ferguson and St. Louis County. The mayor, prosecutor, or judge could simply tell the clerk of the court to recall all outstanding warrants and place defendants on a new docket date.
In addition to warrants being recalled we asked for fines to be forgiven. Again, the mayor himself may not have this authority. However, even if that is true, the court could set aside all pleas of guilty on its own motion and forgive all fines and court costs through a process called nolle prosequi. That is completely within the court's discretion. It happens frequently at the request of private attorneys in cases all throughout St. Louis county.
The city Attorney is also the prosecuting attorney in Ferguson. She was at the Council Meeting. She could use her prosecutorial discretion and recommend that all moving violations be amended to non-moving violations, assess no fines and no court costs. This is with her authority.
There are a number of ways to accomplish what we have asked them to do. Ferguson has taken very important and praiseworthy steps towards healing the community with their reforms announced last night. It cannot be overstated how important it is to abolish the Failure to Appear charge. If Ferguson leadership wants to continue to move forward and become a model for the rest of the region and maybe the country, they could implement a true amnesty and fine forgiveness.
Email the author at Jessica.Lussenhop@RiverfrontTimes.com.