Mayor Tishaura Jones is making good on a threat to dip into federal pandemic aid without authorization from the Board of Aldermen, this time so she can distribute money to help low-income St. Louisans avoid eviction. The goal is laudable because thousands of individuals, including families, stand on the brink of homelessness now that a federal moratorium on evictions has expired. But the normal rules restrict the mayor from spending money that hasn’t been appropriated by the Board of Aldermen. Aldermen have been clear that the mayor does not have permission to spend federal pandemic aid however she likes.
Adding to the controversy was an announcement by Jones on Tuesday flaunting her defiance of the board and urging an extension of a federal moratorium on evictions — something the Biden administration said it could not do without action by Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear it would overturn additional attempts to extend the moratorium by executive decree.
Jones announced Friday she would use $1.5 million to help people avoid eviction. Politically, aldermen don’t dare take action to stop the mayor from helping people on the verge of crisis. At the same time, if they allow her self-appropriation of funds to go unchallenged in court, she can be expected to do it again in the future. Jones acknowledged last week that she was “evaluating” the self-appropriation of federal pandemic aid by invoking emergency powers to combat a resurgence of coronavirus infections.
She is in the middle of a heated dispute with aldermanic President Lewis Reed over a portion of the nearly $500 million in federal pandemic aid destined for St. Louis. On Tuesday, Jones sought to blame Reed for forcing her to take unilateral action, saying he “continues to hold up millions of dollars in direct relief including resources that would help expedite assistance applications. The administration continues to explore possible avenues to get around this obstinacy and get direct relief to the people of St. Louis.”
It’s not clear whether Jones recognizes a limit to her authority. Her threats of unilateral action seem certain to provoke ire even among her allies on the Board of Aldermen.
The only way to resolve this dispute is in court, which raises yet another complicated issue: Aldermen know they cannot rely on the city counselor to represent them since that office also represents the mayor. In previous disputes with the executive branch, aldermen have been forced to come up with their own funding to cover legal expenses.
Had the board failed to appropriate legal-representation funds for this predictable dispute with Jones, aldermen might have had no choice but to sit on the sidelines and watch as the mayor spends at will, steadily whittling away at the federal funds — and weakening aldermanic authority in the process.