Part-time Ferguson mayor in full-time spotlight

James Knowles III
FILE - In this March 11, 2015 file photo, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III announces the resignation of police chief Thomas Jackson during a news conference in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — In the days since the release of a Justice Department report that found widespread racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department, the mayor of the St. Louis suburb has become a part-time public servant in a full-time spotlight.

The attention has only intensified as six city employees — most notably the police chief and city manager — have been fired or stepped down.

But Mayor James Knowles III remains, making just $4,200 a year in a job he called basically ceremonial before a white police officer shot an unarmed black 18-year-old in August, prompting weeks of sometimes-violent protests and the Justice Department inquiry. He’s now so involved that he’s opened a City Hall office and insists he will stay to see the city through the changes it must make.

On Friday, five residents filed an affidavit seeking to recall Knowles. They have 60 days to collect enough signatures — 15 percent of registered voters in the last mayoral election — to qualify for a special election.

Knowles said he has no plans to step aside.

“Obviously there are people on the street calling for my resignation, but my voicemail, my text messages and my Facebook are full with literally hundreds of people who want me to stay,” Knowles said in an Associated Press interview Friday. “Somebody has to show leadership, and I’m focused on how we can move this community forward.”

He argues that Ferguson’s city manager form of government made him more figurehead than administrator, leading the city council but lacking the power to do much else. But critics say he must have known about the lax police oversight, racial profiling and profit-driven court practices cited in the Justice Department report released March 4.

“I want the mayor out,” said Kayla Reed, 25, of the Organization for Black Struggle. “True accountability means clean house, top to bottom.”

Knowles, who grew up in Ferguson, was just a few years out of Truman State University when he defeated an incumbent for election to the city council in 2005. He was elected state chairman of the Missouri Federation of Young Republicans in 2008 and was on the fast-track, earning mention in 2009 in the St. Louis Business Journal’s “30 Under 30” list. He was elected to his current post in 2011, becoming one of Missouri’s youngest mayors, and re-elected without opposition in 2014.

But he was little known outside the area until Aug. 9, when Officer Darren Wilson shot 18-year-old Michael Brown and Ferguson found itself suddenly in the national spotlight. After the shooting, Knowles and Police Chief Tom Jackson became the public face of Ferguson, holding news conferences, hosting public forums and reaching out to civil rights leaders and protesters. Meanwhile, City Manager John Shaw, who made $120,000 a year until he resigned Tuesday, remained out of sight.

Knowles’ full-time job is being general manager of the state-contracted motor vehicle license office in Ferguson. The city’s assistant city manager, Pam Hylton, has been named the interim city manager.

Knowles has sought to be a reassuring presence for supporters and critics alike. At a council meeting Tuesday, he sat patiently as some residents loudly called for his ouster. He was equally passive as others praised him and the council. When a brief shouting match began between a city critic and supporter, he urged both sides to calm down.

Knowles, who is white, has deep roots in the city of 21,000, where two-thirds of residents are black. He was a top wrestler at McCluer High School and has been an assistant wrestling coach at another mostly black high school for several years. He and his wife are expecting their first child in May.

He was drawn to politics in fourth grade, when his father ran for city council (he lost but won on a subsequent try.) Former Mayor Brian Fletcher, who worked alongside him when he was a young councilman, said Knowles has a bit of ego, like most politicians. He isn’t up for re-election for another two years, and Fletcher believes he’ll ride out the storm.

“He’s in a tough situation,” Fletcher said. “He’s taken a lead. From the people I’ve talked to they’re very pleased with the way he’s handled himself under a very difficult circumstance, a very difficult time for our community.”

But Rasheen Aldridge, director of Young Activists United St. Louis and a member of the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon, believes Knowles needs to follow the police chief and city manager out the door. The Justice Department report — a companion to one that cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing — laid bare instances of racial profiling and bias in the police department and a municipal court system that profited largely on the backs of blacks.

“When all of this stuff was going on, there’s no way you can be the mayor of the town and not look at how much money is coming in, and even if you see it you don’t raise a concern,” Aldridge said. “This is his city. He’s the mayor, and he needs to be held accountable.”

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