Ferguson City Council to feature 3 black members for first time in history

Reuters / Whitney Curtis
The Ferguson City Council will have three African-American members for the first time in its roughly 120-year history after voters elected two more black officials during Tuesday's St. Louis County elections, local media is reporting.

With questions swirling about whether the predominantly black community would turn out in high numbers, preliminary numbers suggest that almost 30 percent of registered voters went to the polls. That more than doubles the turnout from the last election, which was 12 percent.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, results show that Ella Jones, Wesley Bell and Brian Patrick Fletcher were elected to the council, according to local KMOV. Jones and Bell are both black, bringing the total number of black council members to three, including sitting member Dwayne James.

Tuesday's election was the first since last August, when teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer, throwing the town into turmoil. The vote is widely seen as a test of community activists’ ability to convert the anger and emotions behind the months-long street protests into action at the ballot box.

"I'm worried that this is going to look bad for Ferguson because I know the world is watching, and the world is anticipating a large turnout," LaRhonda Wilson, a voter in the city’s Ward 3, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as heavy rain and hail pelted the area.

The Ferguson City Council has six seats, with the mayor acting as the seventh and tie-breaker. Three of those seats are up for a vote, in Wards 1 through 3. Although 67 percent of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are African-American, the outgoing City Council had only one black member.

Elected to a three-year term, the council members are paid $250 per month and face the unenviable task of managing a city divided by racial tensions. The council is expected to appoint the new city manager and police chief at a meeting in June, replacing the officials who resigned in the wake of last month’s Department of Justice (DOJ) probe, which discovered a “pattern of unlawful conduct” in Ferguson’s police department and the courts.

In Ward 3, the area where Brown was shot, the contest was between local magistrate Wesley Bell and Pastor Lee Smith, both black. In Ward 2, former Mayor Brian Fletcher is facing Bob Hudgins, one of the participants in last year’s protests. Both are white, but Hudgins noted in the campaign that his wife is black and they have a biracial teenage son.

Four candidates in Ward 1 – Ella Jones, Adrienne Hawkins, Doyle McClellan and Mike McGrath – ran for the council seat vacated by a police officer who resigned in the wake of the DOJ investigation. Jones and Hawkins are black.

Smith, Hudgins and Jones were backed by the local Democratic Party leadership and were widely expected to vote as a bloc if they win.

More than half the city is registered to vote, but the turnout in local elections has traditionally been low – most recently, only 12 percent voted, compared to the 70 percent turnout in the presidential poll. Only 608 people have registered to vote since Brown was shot, and officials reported only about 200 absentee ballots were requested prior to Tuesday’s vote, indicating relatively low interest in the election. However, community activist Rasheen Aldridge thinks turnout will be higher than usual.

You can really tell that the people in the community definitely want some change,” Aldridge told RT. “They are excited about this election, excited that they can go to the ballot box and make their voices heard.”

Having their voices heard in the local election is the residents’ best chance to achieve real change in local governance. “I think this will be, hopefully, a game changer,” in Ferguson as well as the other nearby localities, Aldridge said.

Last month, five Ferguson residents sent a letter to City Hall asking mayor James Knowles to resign. In order to force a special election, they would need to gather enough signatures - 15 percent of the registered voters in the last mayoral election - by May 15.