The big question may be why. Why — after months of being in the red-hot glare of the national and international media in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown — would eight people decide to run for seats on the beleaguered Ferguson City Council, all for a part-time job that pays $250 a month?
“I’m only optimistic about our future. I’m concerned what we’ve been through,” said Brian Fletcher, a former mayor who is running in the city’s 2nd Ward. “It’s unfortunate it happened here. But I feel that we’re strong enough to survive it.”
In a region where contests for local offices receive little more than a fleeting mention beyond a town’s borders, the races for three open seats on the Ferguson City Council are getting unprecedented coverage.
“Ever since I’ve been here, no one has gotten that much attention over a councilman race,” said Lee Smith, a candidate for the 3rd Ward seat.
That's because the April 7 election is taking place as the city stands at a crossroad.
Ferguson’s municipal court judge, city manager and police chief resigned in the course of three days. The U.S. Department of Justice painted a damning picture of city law enforcement as racially biased and revenue-focused. And then there’s the matter of rebuilding businesses burned to the ground amid rioting and looting.
The new council members will have to tackle those issues — and perhaps this time with a diverse City Council.
On your mark…
Ferguson has a council-city manager form of government, with staffers running the day-to-day matters of the city. Elected officials are part-time and have limited authority over staff or hiring.
The Council consists of six council members and a mayor. Two council members are elected from each of the three wards, for three-year, overlapping terms. The mayor is elected at large and also serves a three-year term. The current mayor, James Knowles III, is not up for re-election this year. Some residents have talked about organizing a recall campaign on him.
Three council seats are up for election this year. All three incumbents — Ward 1 Councilwoman Kim Tihen, Ward 2 Councilman Tim Larson and Ward 3 Councilman David Conway— declined to run for another term.
Eight candidates are running for the three spots, including four African Americans. Ferguson is roughly two-thirds black; one of the six current council members is black, which has prompted major criticism after Brown was shot and killed by then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson, in connection with the shooting.
Here’s how the races stack up. Four candidates — Ella Jones, Doyle McClellan, Adrienne Hawkins and Mike McGrath — are running for the 1st Ward seat.
McGrath runs his own high-tech business, is active in a number of civic groups and just finished eight years on the city’s planning commission.
McClellan is a professor at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Ill., and has lived in Ferguson about two years.
Adrienne Hawkins is a federal employee and a longtime Ferguson resident.
Jones is a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, and just left a longtime job as sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics. Jones also heads the Ferguson Township Open Democratic Club.
The 2nd Ward race features Fletcher taking on Bob Hudgins, a former broadcaster at KWMU and a fixture in the protest movement since Brown’s death. Fletcher served as Ferguson’s mayor for two terms and was the creator of the I Love Ferguson business booster group.
The 3rd Ward race features attorney Wesley Bell taking on Smith, a retired factory worker. The ward includes the Canfield Green apartment complex, which was near where Brown was killed. Both candidates are African American.
The candidates have individual reasons for running. But all felt compelled to serve after discord struck the city over the last seven months.
“Somehow, I noticed racism very early on in St. Louis,” said Hudgins, who’s lived in Ferguson for about four years. “It’s always bothered me. I was married 13 years to a black woman. My only son is biracial.
"I’m very aware of these problems. I had noticed an oppressive police presence here. And also, they had never stopped me. And that seemed almost incredible for being here for four years. So I put it all together.”
Bell noted that Brown was killed only a few days after Bell lost to Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, for a seat on the St. Louis County Council. He said his decision to run goes hand-in-hand with his work as a criminal justice professor at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and his work in the Ferguson Youth Initiative.
“I don’t want us to look back two or three years from now and say ‘hey, this was a missed opportunity,’” Bell said. “I want us to look back and say ‘we set an example not only for the region, but the country and the world to follow because we addressed those issues and look at us now.’”
In the 1st Ward, Ella Jones said she'd already planned two years ago -- long before the Ferguson unrest or Brown's death -- to run for the council this spring. "I wanted to make a difference," she said. "I wanted to get involved."
Adrienne Hawkins and Doyle McClellan, two other 1st Ward candidates, offered similar reasons for their decisions to run for office for the first time.
"I decided I could no longer stand by,'' said Hawkins, who noted that her twin sons were just a couple of years older than Michael Brown. She said that she lives just a few blocks from the main protest route and became concerned when the protests at times "turned into something more sinister."
McGrath, 64, and a longtime community volunteer, said he's deeply concerned about the effects on Ferguson. "The city is my family,'' he said. "I have no parents and no siblings. I take it personally what happened."
McClellan said, "I think we're going to have one chance to get this right."
Shadow of justice
Perhaps the most pressing issue the new council members will face is how to respond to the U.S. Department of Justice’s report about Ferguson’s police department.
The report cast the department as racially biased and focused on using fines to boost city revenue. It included recommendations that could prove to be expensive for the town down the line.
Fletcher said the city should enter into a consent decree with the Department of Justice and work toward changing the police department.
“I believe that there will be a consent agreement, and we’ll be monitored by the Department of Justice for the next several years,” Fletcher said. “And that’s an expense to the city. It’s not paid by the federal government. But I think we can be a much better community and have a much better productive professional police force.”
Both Fletcher and Bell are advocates of transitioning into “community policing.” And for Bell, that means exhibiting more than just superficial efforts to gain the trust of residents.
“You can’t just have a few officers show up at some children’s event and say ‘hey, this is proof of us doing community-oriented policing,’” Bell said. “It has to be a cultural change, where officers don’t see themselves as distant from the community or policing the community. But they are also a part of that community. And also in policies that are implemented, we need to allow the public to have input in those policies.”
Both Smith and Hudgins say the Department of Justice report should spur a radical change in how the police deal with people. Smith said the city’s law enforcement system has “developed culture of perpetrating unfair, extreme and sometimes deadly force upon certain segments of its citizenry.”
“The first thing that I would like to try and do is make sure we be honest about what created the issues in the first place,” Smith said. “And the DOJ has already decided that there’s been some racial divide in our community over the years. That’s the first thing: We have an honest debate on this open discussion and we lay all of our cards on the table about that.”
McGrath is critical of the DOJ report, saying its statistics about traffic stops, for example, failed to take into consideration that many of Ferguson’s white residents, a third of the population, are elderly. The African-American population is younger, so they’re more likely to be driving and, therefore, more likely to have traffic violations, he said.
“It was meant to prove the point that Eric Holder wanted to prove,’’ he said. “All it’s done is to inflame the situation.”
McClellan also has problems with the report’s statistics, but emphasizes that he agrees with its assessment. “There’s overwhelming evidence that we have problems that need to be addressed,’’ he said.
Jones contends that the focus now should be to move forward. She advocates signing a consent degree with the Justice Department and hiring a monitor to make sure the city complies with the agreement.
Hawkins called the report “a validation’’ of what many African-American residents believed about Ferguson’s problems. But the key focus now, she said, has to be on the future. “We’ve cut the head off the monster,’’ Hawkins said. “Now we have to rebuild.”
Rebuilding the city
Some of the candidates have fairly sweeping visions on how to revive Ferguson’s economy, which has taken a big hit after riots in August and November.
Hudgins wants to enact a “municipal stimulus” plan to help build the city. He also said he wants to work with federal political figures such as U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, to get grants to help the city.
“We want a liberal coalition running through this area. That’s my ambition,” Hudgins said. “There has to be a counter, along with people like Fannie Lou Hamer people to the [Steve Stenger], white moderate, Jay Nixon-type of Democrats in this state. We can do it. We’re tired of this.”
Fletcher also said he would reach out to others to bring resources in to rebuild the city. He said his decades of experience in the local political arena would be an asset.
Smith said that more must be done to attract business to his ward — beyond the ones on West Florissant Avenue. And he wants a broader effort to reach out to black residents who feel disconnected with the local government.
“The issues that plague our wards have affected similar communities across America,” said Smith, adding that such issues include unemployment and urban blight. “The same problem we face in Ferguson can be seen throughout our entire region.”
McClellan says a major problem is the physical divide between the older apartments, such as Canfield, where many low-income residents live, and the rest of Ferguson. Many of the apartment buildings are not close to city services or public transportation, he said, even though their residents often need such access.
Hawkins advocates that Ferguson undertake a massive economic-development effort to provide more opportunities for low-income youth who otherwise might turn to crime.
As for McGrath, he says many candidates don't appear to be aware of Ferguson's past successful efforts. "The downtown area resembles nothing of what it was a decade ago, and this includes the police department," he said. "This town was moving forward in all areas but since August we have been fighting for our survival."
Antagonism toward county police takeover
Whatever their differences, all the candidates agree on one thing: Ferguson should change its police department from within, not get rid of it entirely.
Some have speculated that the cost of the consent decree and the bad publicity from the Justice Department report may force the city to dissolve its police department. That would result in the St. Louis County Police Department patrolling the city.
But none of the candidates appears receptive to that idea. And that matters because the city council would have to propose a ballot initiative to voters for the police department to be dissolved.
Both Bell and Smith, for instance, questioned whether such a switch would actually change much for African Americans. Bell noted he was often pulled over by county police for “no reason” when he was growing up.
“I say, be careful what you wish for,” Bell said. “One of the things that people like or enjoy about having their own police department is that their police department has to be responsive to the citizens. As a Ferguson resident, if I have a problem with the police department — which there are some things that I have serious issues with — I have an opportunity to run for office, I have an opportunity to vote and change that and help improve that police department. But with St. Louis County, I have less of a voice now.”
Smith said, “We’ve got a lot of people outside of Ferguson that’s making decisions for Ferguson.” He added that he’d rather see an intensive effort to reform the city’s police department.
“The policies, the reason behind the improprieties and disparities between African Americans and whites are driven by revenue for the city,” Smith said. “And not safety. And that policy has created a culture in the police department to continue to do that off the back of poor people. And most of the poor people in Ferguson are black people.”
In the 1st Ward contest, Hawkins said she's an unabashed supporter of community policing. She believes that's the best way to forge a constructive and helpful relationship between law enforcement and local residents.
Jones also strongly supports keeping a Ferguson police department, which she says fits in with "our own identity, our ownership'' of what happens in the community.
McClellan said he also supports the police, but objects to "this notion of using law enforcement as a source of revenue'' by targeting drivers for minor traffic offenses to provide income for city government.
McGrath, a police-department volunteer for several years, said that many of its officers have been unfairly maligned, while trying to protect all Ferguson's residents. During his door-to-door campaigning, McGrath said that most residents — black and white — share his views. "I am pro-law and order and definitely pro-local police ... to a house, the residents have echoed the same. They want to feel safe and they want local police. "