Special Department of Justice unit tells city that for open dialog, media can’t be present.
FERGUSON • The news release was emailed to dozens of local and national media representatives.
The city of Ferguson was promoting a five-week series of “town hall” meetings beginning Monday to update residents “on changes the council wants the community to consider’’ and to address concerns about the city.
But by Friday, a little-known unit of the U.S. Department of Justice had gotten involved, and those meetings, originally billed by Mayor James Knowles III as a dialogue with the community “so they know exactly where we stand on things with full transparency,” would be closed to the media and nearly anyone else who wasn’t a resident.
In the days after Michael Brown’s fatal shooting Aug. 9 by a city police officer, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dispatched the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service to the city to help keep the peace and resolve racial tension.
On Friday, Devin James, a spokesman for Ferguson, said that the Community Relations Service was insisting that reporters be kept out of the city’s “town hall’’ meetings planned for each of three wards because having media present could alter the conversations.
The first meetings are scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 110 Church Street; Wellspring Church, 33 South Florissant Road; and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 17 Hawkesbury Drive.
“It allows us to have a more true dialogue,” James said. “It’s for the benefit of the community.”
In an email late Friday, Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, confirmed that the “town hall” meetings were being overseen by the Community Relations Service.
Iverson also pointed to the unit’s mission statement, which says the service “provides confidential mediation, facilitation, training, and consulting services to help communities enhance their ability to alleviate, solve, and respond to future conflicts more effectively.”
She did not respond to a question about whether the city’s town hall meetings fit the mediation concept.
The unit was also sent to Sanford, Fla., last year in the aftermath of the slaying of Trayvon Martin and trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin.
City Attorney Stephanie Karr said she believed the decision to restrict attendance to residents and certain invited guests at the town hall meetings doesn’t violate Missouri’s Sunshine Law because only two council members would be present at each meeting. Without a quorum, such gatherings of council members do not violate the state’s open meetings requirements, Karr said.
Karr, however, also said that the city would not do anything to keep reporters from attending, but that would be up to the Department of Justice.
After Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown on Aug. 9, the city saw a number of protests, some of which county and state law enforcement agencies quelled by using tear gas, rubber bullets and armored personnel vehicles.
A City Council meeting on Sept. 9, held at the Greater Grace Church to accommodate the large crowd, was disrupted several times by angry chants from protesters, some of whom were not from Ferguson.
Another council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.
On Friday, Knowles said the city was still exploring possible venues for that meeting.
Source: Stephen Deere for St. Louis Post-Dispatch