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Ferguson city council discusses concent decree

Ferguson city councilmen Dwayne James (left) and Mark Byrne (right) and mayor James Knowles III (center) listen to comments from the community during a meeting of of the council on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

FERGUSON • A proposal to overhaul Ferguson’s police department and court that was rebuffed more than three weeks ago is expected to be brought up again for a vote Tuesday, according to a source familiar with the negotiations between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The vote comes at a critical time: right after a new appointment to the Ferguson City Council has created a shift in favor of accepting a consent decree with the Justice Department. And a vote next week would take place before the April municipal election.

Last month, the City Council voted to accept a consent decree negotiated with the Justice Department, but with seven amendments. One revision eliminated the so-called “poison pill” clause that made the decree apply to any other agency providing policing in Ferguson. That change would have allowed Ferguson to circumvent most of the decree by disbanding its police department.

The Justice Department sued the city the next day.

At that same meeting, council members also appointed Laverne Mitchom, a retired educator, to fill a vacant council seat.

Mitchom participated in the protests following Michael Brown’s death, which sparked a Justice Department investigation into the city. That investigation “uncovered a community in distress, in which residents felt under assault by their own police force,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

On Monday, in closed session, a majority of the council indicated it supported the consent decree and placing the decree on Tuesday’s meeting agenda — without the amendments — for a public vote, the source said.

The city declined to provide the Post-Dispatch with the results of any vote that occurred behind closed doors on Monday, saying in an email that “no vote was taken that would be subject to disclosure at this time” under Missouri’s open records law.

According to sources, the city has requested that the Justice Department provide Ferguson with a letter that clarifies some language in the consent decree, especially as it relates to the cost of the reforms. The city also wants the agency to reassure residents that it does not intend to bankrupt the municipality.

“The word is that the DOJ is already sending a side letter, and we haven’t seen it yet,” said Blake Ashby, a leader of Ferguson Truth, an organization formed to push the Justice Department to release records related to the consent decree.

On Wednesday, Ferguson Truth released a statement calling on the Justice Department to acknowledge the city may have difficulty meeting some timelines in the agreement; allow Ferguson to use a police data warehouse to help lower the cost of a federal monitor; and clarify a provision in the decree that was originally projected to raise the cost of the reforms by $1.9 million.

“We have talked to enough people that if those clarifications are made by the DOJ, we are comfortable getting in front of a judge and moving forward,” Ashby said.

Of the decree’s more than 450 provisions, one requires Ferguson to develop a plan to offer police salaries that are among the “most competitive” with comparable agencies in St. Louis County.

Ferguson Finance Director Jeffrey Blume had said the provision may require that Ferguson give 25 percent raises not only to police officers but all employees — raising the cost to $3.7 million the first year.

But a Post-Dispatch analysis found that to arrive at that number, city officials appeared to have accelerated deadlines in the agreement, used salary data from cities beyond the required scope, and ignored the context of the “most-competitive” phrase.

Nevertheless, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III has insisted that a lawsuit would be cheaper than abiding by the terms of the decree.

The city has yet to receive the letter from the Justice Department, a source said, but federal officials assured Ferguson leaders in an email that if the city indicates it will approve the decree, then the agency will provide written clarification about “the most-competitive” provision as well as a pledge to work with Ferguson on other costs.

Ashby had been one of the decree’s most vocal critics, arguing that it would result in the city’s dissolution, but on Wednesday he said a recent meeting with Justice Department officials had helped alleviate some concerns, as did new information about how the costs of the decree might be lowered.

Asked in a text message if the council would vote on the decree on Tuesday, Knowles responded: “There’s no such bill on the agenda.” But he acknowledged that agendas for City Council meetings are typically released on Friday.

He declined to respond to a follow-up question about the relevance of an item not appearing on a document that does not yet exist.

Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.