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Lawsuit says that recall of Ferguson Mayor should move forward

Lawsuit says that recall of Ferguson Mayor should move forward

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Ferguson Mayor James Knowles

Ferguson Mayor James W. Knowles III at a City Council meeting on June 23, 2015. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

A resident seeking to oust Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III has filed a lawsuit against the city clerk and the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners, claiming a number of signatures on a petition to recall Knowles were improperly invalidated.

Last week, the Board of Election Commissioners announced that a group trying to remove Knowles was 27 signatures shy of the 1,814 needed to force a recall election.

In the lawsuit, filed late Wednesday, Robert Hudgins argues that more than 28 of the signatures that were not accepted by the election board “were actually, in fact, valid signatures.” Hudgins, an unsuccessful City Council candidate last April, is a member of a committee of five residents formed to remove Knowles.

Tony Rice, a leader of the group Ground Level Support, which gathered the signatures, said it appeared some weren’t counted because they were printed, not written in cursive.

On Thursday, Rice produced a handful of petitions where signers had printed their names in a jagged script, as if their hands were shaking at the time they signed. The signatures weren’t counted, according to notations made on the petition by the election board, Rice said, an offered one explanation for why some voters signatures may have changed over time.

“This is an elderly population,” Rice said. “People have strokes.”

The suit asks for a judge to determine the validity of the signatures and to order Ferguson City Clerk Megan Asikainen to initiate a recall election.

Gary Fuhr, St. Louis County’s Republican election director, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he said voters’ signatures on a petition are checked by comparing them to those on file in a state database.

The signatures in the database are updated regularly with voter registration cards filled out after a change of address.

But Fuhr acknowledged that some signatures may not be up to date, particularly if the voter stays at the same address for a long time and votes regularly.

“All we can use to verify petitions and records sent to us is the best information that the voter is providing us,” Fuhr said.

Knowles, who ran unopposed in 2014, has been mayor since 2011. He was thrust into the national spotlight after the shooting death of Michael Brown in August. He has been widely criticized for a statement he made last year that Ferguson was not racially divided. Those who want him out of office argue that he helped establish the police and court policies that preyed on the poor through fines to boost the city’s revenue, as described in a Department of Justice report.

But Knowles supporters say the part-time mayor, who is only one of seven votes on the City Council, was placed in a difficult situation and has worked hard to unify the city during a difficult period.

A city spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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

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