The manner in which St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones has attempted to ramrod her first budget priorities has been anything but graceful. The result has been a loss of control over the first allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid heading to the city. And her last-minute attempt to regain that control has resulted in a standoff with aldermen resulting in a political plug stopping the flow of these critical funds.
Members of the Board of Aldermen sent a strong message to the first-term mayor, one clearly articulated by 19th Ward Alderman Marlene Davis: “This is not a dictatorship.”
Davis and a majority of other aldermen feel that Jones has been disrespectful and totalitarian as she has attempted to go around the legislative branch in disbursing the first allocations of the nearly $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act money approved by Congress and heading to the city over two years.
“We’ve had a very embarrassing process take place the last month or so,” Davis said last Tuesday during a 12-hour virtual aldermanic meeting. “It is appalling what has happened. The disrespect that has been there. And the total, total disrespect to the Board of Aldermen.”
The three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which also must approve the disbursements, embarrassed “the entire region,” Davis added. “And I mean literally the region has been paying attention to all of this. And to sit and pass — or at least to believe that a piece of legislation has passed in E&A with a process that does not even exist.”
Davis was referring to the June 30 action by the estimate and apportionment board, made up of the mayor, the comptroller and the aldermanic president. At that meeting, Jones and Comptroller Darlene Green voted to approve the mayor’s plan to spend $81.4 million of the federal funds before aldermen had a chance to weigh in.
Board President Lewis Reed told the other E&A members that wasn’t the process and he warned that doing so would only tick off aldermen. And tick them off, it did.
“The hesitation of people right now is from the way this administration has treated us,” said Alderman Pam Boyd of north St. Louis’ 27th Ward during Tuesday’s marathon meeting. Boyd took issue with how Jones not only tried to go around aldermen in allocating the federal funds but also in how the mayor publicly tried to blame aldermen should those funds not be appropriated by July 1, just two weeks after first unveiling her spending plan. Then, Boyd complained, Jones’ office distributed an opinion by her newly appointed city counselor alleging that the aldermanic proposal to earmark $33 million for targeted investment in north St. Louis might not comply with federal regulations.
“As I look at the emails that’s come in and they’re saying that it’s illegal what we’re trying to do,” said Boyd. “But it just interests me that it’s illegal because we’re focused on north St. Louis.”
It’s also interesting that the mayor’s appointed city counselor took issue with funds earmarked for north St. Louis but was silent on the mayor’s request for $5 million in American Rescue Plan funds to send direct payments of $500 to some city residents without any explanation of who would receive those funds or how the beneficiaries would be selected. That was the major issue that caused aldermen to initially strip out that section of the mayor’s proposal.
“That’s why I voted present on this when it came to the [Housing, Urban Development and Zoning] committee,” said Alderman John Collins-Muhammad of the 21st Ward, who Tuesday sponsored an amendment to put the direct payments back in the bill — but this time with checks on the mayor’s authority. “Because there was no plan or process given. It was just, ‘let’s give it away,’” he said.
For more than a week, the mayor rallied her allies and used social media to pressure aldermen to pass her plan, including direct payments to “the people who need it most.” The tactics and rhetoric elevated tensions with aldermen, who firmly took control of the appropriation process this past week, approving a bill which more than doubled the mayor’s original proposal. The now $168 million appropriation was sent to the estimate and apportionment board and included the direct payments that Jones said were so critical.
But at Friday’s E&A meeting, Jones and Green did not support the bill, leaving $5 million in direct payments to the city’s poor, $33 million for north St. Louis investment, $5 million to replace funding for police overtime ($4 million of which were removed by Jones and Green), and $125 million more in aid unable to be spent.
“Many times we are our own worst enemy,” Davis stated in Tuesday’s meeting. “A lot of people … don’t feel like they have any trust. Until they see something better they probably are going to hold their ground.”
The Board of Aldermen doesn’t trust this mayor. And this mayor does not respect the Board of Aldermen. And so both sides are holding their ground. And the city and its people suffer.
Antonio French is a columnist and member of the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board. @AntonioFrench on Twitter.