FERGUSON • Voters on Tuesday will decide if the man who served as Ferguson’s public face through the intense civil unrest following Michael Brown’s shooting death should continue leading a municipality still struggling to mend itself.
In the first mayoral election since Brown’s death, Mayor James Knowles III, 37, is being challenged by Councilwoman Ella Jones, 62.
The early absentee vote returns showed Knowles had a slight edge with 118 votes to Jones' 108.
The two candidates could not be more different.
Knowles, a polished public speaker, is seeking his third term. He was a staunch defender of city government amid angry demonstrations at City Council meetings. He began serving on the council at age 25. He has the support of longtime residents who believed the U.S. Department of Justice unfairly targeted the city after the protests.
Jones would be the first African-American mayor in Ferguson’s 122-year history if elected in the nonpartisan race. A former Mary Kay cosmetics sales director, she has been on the City Council since 2015. She has the reluctant support of resident activists and worked behind the scenes to get an agreement with the Justice Department passed last year.
“This is about whether we break away from the image and reputation of our city as divided and unwilling to change and grow,” Jones said at a debate this week. “Or will we remain as a symbol of oppression and regression?”
In the aftermath of Brown’s death, Knowles went from being an unknown small-town mayor to a spokesman of a city that became a national symbol of racial division and police brutality. That role as spokesman has brought him both derision over insensitive comments and praise for correcting unfair portrayals of his hometown.
“I have spent, really, the entirety of my time in office working to bring this community together to rebuild what had been damaged and destroyed,” said Knowles, first elected in 2011. “I’ve been accused of many things by many people. I think most people who know me, know those things are not true.”
City Hall has grappled with turnover in the past three years. City managers and police chiefs have come and gone. Only one of the six council members who were in office when Brown was shot remains.
In an interview, Knowles touted his institutional knowledge.
“If the community is going to be successful, the old and the new have to work together,” said Knowles, who also works as a manager at a license office.
Ferguson is run by a city manager hired by the council. The mayor is the designated spokesperson and votes along with other council members. Under the city’s charter, the mayor and other council members are prohibited from giving direct orders to city staff except through the city manager.
It’s a system designed to eliminate favoritism. It also can result in credit and blame put on the wrong shoulders.
“During the unrest, nobody wanted to know: ‘Where’s the city manager?’” Jones said. “Everybody wanted to know ‘Where’s the mayor?’ … The mayor is the symbol of the city.”
‘Don’t say you didn’t know’
After Brown’s shooting death at the hands of a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014, the propensity of some north St. Louis County municipalities to ticket poor residents to replenish city coffers emerged as a central explanation for why people were so angry.
A Justice Department investigation found multiple police and municipal court abuses in Ferguson, and last year, the city and Justice Department agreed on a long list of reforms.
Knowles has never denied that city administrators, police and municipal officials filled city coffers by issuing tickets.
Instead, he has pointed out that Ferguson isn’t the worst offender. He pleads ignorance about festering animosity the ticketing created.
“As you go back and look through the many years leading up to the Michael Brown incident, we never heard an outcry about these issues,” Knowles said. “There’s never been a City Council meeting where you hear about excessive ticketing.”
But Jones pointed to a paragraph in a Justice Department report that said concerns about unlawful and abusive ticketing practices had been raised for years — even from within city government.
In 2012, one council member opposed the reappointment of Judge Ron Brockmeyer because of reports that “[the judge] does not listen to the testimony, does not review the reports or the criminal history of defendants, and doesn’t let all the pertinent witnesses testify before rendering a verdict,” according to the report.
Then-City Manager John Shaw acknowledged Brockmeyer had mixed reviews, but he urged the council to retain Brockmeyer because the city could not afford to see a decline in revenue produced by fines.
“Don’t say you didn’t know,” Jones said to Knowles at the debate. “The council did know.”
‘A terrible mistake’
Knowles countered by attacking Jones’ sincerity about municipal court reform.
The most significant statewide reform created from the Ferguson unrest was a new law capping the amount of revenue from traffic fines at 20 percent of a municipality’s budget — and 12.5 percent in St. Louis County.
But a Cole County judge ruled that the different percentage for St. Louis County was unconstitutional; the state appealed and is awaiting a state Supreme Court’s ruling. Ferguson is not a plaintiff in the case.
In August, the City Council approved a contribution of up to $1,000 to a law firm challenging the St. Louis County provision. Knowles’ was the lone dissenting vote.
“I think it was a terrible mistake,” Knowles said.
Knowles said the vote took place “almost in secret” and violated the consent decree. He said he had argued against it to the council.
But Councilman Wesley Bell, who supports Jones, said he was surprised at Knowles’ no vote. The mayor, Bell noted, first brought up the idea of making the donation.
On August 22, Knowles emailed the council a letter soliciting the donation. “I’m passing this along at the request of Mayor Viola Murphy of Cool Valley and mayors of the 24-1 communities,” Knowles wrote. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Will we be donating as a city and if so from what account and how do we handle the public commentary?” asked Councilwoman Linda Lipka in an email. “If not, do we support these efforts privately?”
Another council member asked to discuss the matter in closed session. But Knowles responded that former City Attorney Stephanie Karr had advised that the matter had to be discussed by email or in open session. At a council meeting the next day, the council voted unanimously to meet privately to discuss “legal actions.”
When the council reconvened, the videographer who records the meetings had left. The meeting minutes don’t describe the discussion before the vote.
Jones said she supported the contribution, not because she opposed the law, but because she thought percentages should be applied equally and that some smaller municipalities were suffering unfairly because of it.
Capturing the truth
The two do agree on at least one issue: a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would regulate how police use body cameras.
The amendment, also on Tuesday’s ballot, requires that police keep the cameras turned on while on duty, preserve the video for two years, make any video taken in public places a public record and make video not obtained in public place a closed record to the extent allowed by law. It also would mandate that videos of officers using force be sent to the City Council on a monthly basis and prohibit officers from using cameras for biometric searches.
Ferguson police were donated body cameras shortly after Brown’s death, but video of controversial arrests isn’t always retained. The city blamed malfunctioning cameras that it has since replaced.
Jones said she believes the new measure would ensure that officers treat people fairly and protect them from false allegations.
“When an African-American person is stopped, that’s a different feeling than when a white person is stopped,” Jones said. “But if that camera is there, it’s going to capture the truth.”
As each candidate hit on key points during the debate this week, certain parts of the room erupted. The support could be largely determined by skin color. Years after Brown’s death, the division remained apparent — even in the applause.