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Did Ferguson's City Council break transparency laws?

Did Ferguson's City Council break transparency laws?
Patricia Cowan holds out her arms for a St. Louis County police officer as she and others are searched as they enter Greater Grace Church before the start of a meeting of the Ferguson City Council. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Emotions in Ferguson, Mo., roiled by unrest last month after a white police officer fatally shot an 18-year-old black man, were still raw Tuesday night as the City Council heard from often angry residents demanding justice for Michael Brown and better treatment of African Americans in the city.

"Ferguson does need to change," one woman told the council.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said that Thomas Harvey, executive director of the Arch City Defenders, saw the council's proposals as not as far-reaching as he'd like but called them "unequivocally great." Harvey said at least one of the proposals was "unequivocally great," not all of them.

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Other African American residents in the audience complained that city officials were reluctant or unable to answer many questions. A live video feed of the meeting, held at a large church to handle the crowd, showed one woman who referred to Brown's death as an "assassination." Residents described being harassed by police and called on the city's black community to register to vote and change the power structure in the St. Louis suburb.

The meeting came a day after the city made an announcement that was greeted by many community advocates, at first, as a relief.

On Monday, the City Council issued a statement saying it would be launching several reforms in the wake of the Aug. 9 police shooting of Brown and the unrest that followed.

Among the changes: a new citizen's review board to oversee the predominantly black city's predominantly white police force; the abolishment of some municipal court fees that had overwhelmed many of the city's 21,135 residents.

Some speakers applauded the creation of a review board. But if the City Council's aim was transparency, some Missouri advocates and attorneys say the City Council has already fallen short, by potentially breaking state and city laws on public meetings.

City statute requires that the council meet "not less frequently than once each month," which didn't happen in August when the city was engulfed in weeks of protest and unrest.

After Brown's death, an Aug. 26 meeting was canceled. In a statement, the city did not cite a reason for the cancellation but said it did so in consultation with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which had been brought in to provide security in Ferguson. The city also said it was looking for a larger venue to hold the meeting.

When the City Council announced the new policies Monday, some observers wondered whether the council had broken Missouri's sunshine law, which generally requires that public meetings and deliberations be accessible to the public.

"When they come up with a proposal that they're going to implement, one assumes they have been meeting," said Jean Maneke, an attorney specializing in 1st Amendment law who represents the Missouri Press Assn. "If they haven't been meeting, it kind of begs the question: How did they come up with these policies and decide they were going to implement them?"

Maneke added, "Something went on here that just smells."

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Although the council's Tuesday night schedule indicated that members would be going through a first reading of the proposed policies -- two readings are generally required under Ferguson statute -- language in a statement the council issued Monday seemed to treat the passage of the new policies as a foregone conclusion.

The statement said that "these changes have been accomplished or are in the process of implementation," and that the council "will be abolishing" municipal court fees, despite no votes apparently having been taken.

"The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson's courts and police department," City Councilman Mark Byrne said in the statement, which was released through an outside public relations firm. "We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously. That's why we're initiating new changes within our local police force and in our courts."

City Council members could not be reached for comment shortly before the Tuesday's meeting, which, according to a video live feed, had quickly turned into a raucous affair as residents came up to the microphone for public comment.

One resident directly challenged the council on how it came up with its  proposals. "How can you propose a bill for a first reading? Have you been meeting in secret?" the man asked.

One male council member responded, "This is the first reading.... This is our first meeting, first reading," and didn't elaborate. (The Los Angeles Times was not able to determine which council member was speaking.)

At least two advocates who support those changes said in interviews that they were troubled by how the council introduced them.

"It seems as though they had a closed-door meeting and came up with this stuff," said Patricia Bynes, a committeewoman for the Democratic Party in Ferguson.

"It gives the appearance that they've been moving pretty fast, that they held a meeting to come up with this legislation," Bynes told The Times. She added, "This seems like a first step, but we need to slow this stuff down to see what's in here. What's in these bills? What's the effect going to be?"

Thomas Harvey, executive director of the Arch City Defenders, a legal nonprofit that represents many St. Louis-area residents in municipal cases, said the proposals were as not as far-reaching as he'd like, though he called at least one of them "unequivocally great."

Harvey's group has criticized Ferguson and other St. Louis County cities' municipal court systems for "unintentionally" pushing the poor "further into poverty." According to the Ferguson city budget, 21% of the expected revenue in fiscal 2014 will come from municipal court fees and fines, which often fall on down-on-their-luck residents and passersby.

The City Council has proposed removing a "failure to appear" charge for its municipal court appearances and cutting the city reliance on fine revenue down to 15% of the budget, with the excess being diverted toward city improvements.

However, Harvey said, "If I were a citizen of the city of Ferguson, I'd have some questions about these proposals. To my knowledge they haven't met to discuss these things. Does this mean they've been meeting in secret somewhere? ... They've been communicating about this somehow, and it's not [been] in public meetings."

Transparency was a running theme in some comments from residents Tuesday night. Some complained that they still hadn't received answers to key questions. One speaker, referring to the officer who shot Brown, asked bluntly, "Why hasn't Office Darren Wilson been arrested?" When a city official replied that the case was being handled by St. Louis County prosecutors and not Ferguson officials, the audience jeered.

If the City Council did break state open-meetings law and then passes the proposals, there might not be legal consequences, even if someone files a lawsuit, said Maneke, the attorney for the Missouri Press Assn.

"A court has to decide if the acts so violated the law that they needed to be undone or redone properly," Maneke said. If not, nothing might happen.

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However, Maneke said, given the existing concerns about transparency in Ferguson over the shooting death of Michael Brown, "This is not a time for the city of Ferguson to be engaging in activity that looks like subterfuge."

Follow @MattDPearce for national news.

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