Hit & Run

Ferguson Residents Come Out to Vote, Diversify City Council

Minority representation by city leaders more closely matches citizenry.

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Wesley Bell
Source: Bell4stl.com

Municipal elections tend to have paltry turnouts, especially when they're divorced from the more compelling (and more publicized) state or national elections. Ferguson, Missouri, had theirs yesterday, and despite terrible weather, saw their election turnout about double.

About 30 percent of the voting citizens cast their ballots, and the community added two African-American candidates to Ferguson's City Council. Ella Jones and Wesley Bell were victorious last night, and will join a council that, up until now, had Dwayne James as its sole minority representative, despite the city's demographics. Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor, also won a seat on the council.

CNN notes what likely contributed to this year's election turnout: Candidates actually put in the effort. Michael Brown's shooting, the violent aftermath, and the increased attention to Ferguson's broken system of government caused candidates to do more than just pass around yard signs:

Angela Jackson came to the polls with her husband and two little girls in tow. She voted for Ella Jones, a former Mary Kay cosmetics sales director who resigned from her job in January to run for office.

Jackson echoed the thoughts of other Ferguson residents who experienced something new in this election: candidates coming to their door. Past elections have not seen the kind of canvassing activity that took place in the last few weeks.

"One thing we really liked is (Jones) came to our door and talked to us about her desire to make change in our neighborhood," Jackson said. "She's going to be hands on. She lives in the neighborhood as well, and has for the past 36 years. We were kind of taken by that."

Note that minorities in Ferguson will get better representation from within and while remaining a small municipality. In the wake of the Ferguson controversies, some technocrats were calling for the dissolution of the many little communities of the St. Louis greater metropolitan area as a way to keep black residents from being marginalized. But that made little logical sense. Jesse Walker laid out why in August and explained how it would likely reduce the voting influence of minorities, not improve it (to wit: the basic math involved in being a minority, meaning there are fewer of them).

There's another interesting detail in the election results worth keeping an eye on. Bell, who will be representing the district where Brown was shot and the neighborhood damaged by looters, is a municipal court judge in Velda City, another St. Louis community that uses the police to cash in on the citizenry. In the wake of the bad publicity about rapacious fines in St. Louis County, Velda City had a forgiveness program and "sale" on all of its unpaid traffic violations and warrants. From the St. Louis Post Dispatch in September:

Advocates for the poor called it the most generous municipal court amnesty program announced in the area this year. The court in this village of 1,420 — who live on a slice of 0.16 of a square mile — has about 4,000 active warrants, about 85 percent of them for traffic cases.

For its postage-stamp size, the city writes a lot of tickets. The city is near the center of a concentration of small cities and villages that far outpace other areas of the state in court fees, traffic cases and warrants issued per resident — a legal vortex that has come under scrutiny in recent weeks.

Of the municipalities in Missouri that provided court data to the state, Velda City had the sixth-highest rate last year of traffic cases filed per square mile per year: more than 25,000. Police Chief Daniel Paulino estimates that a quarter of the city's residents are fugitives of its court.

Bell may be black, but he's also a part of this system. He defended his role as a judge to The Huffington Post just before the election and said he was in favor of municipal court reform.

The big question will be whether he, Jones, and Fletcher will be willing and able to make the necessary cuts and find the necessary savings so that the police aren't pushed to serve as revenue collectors for the city in the first place. Remember that the racist enforcement of the law was the outcome of a chronic, pressing need for city revenue. That still needs to be fixed.