Laverne Mitchom made history on Tuesday, February 23 when she became the fourth African-American member of the Ferguson City Council, giving the six-person body its first black majority in history. Ferguson was incorporated in 1894.
For decades, Ferguson’s city government did not reflect the city's nearly 70 percent black population. It wasn’t until last April that voters turned out in record numbers to elect two black City Council members.
Mitchom now occupies the Ward 2 seat of former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher, who died on January 10. Before she was sworn in, the empty seat generated both speculation and confusion. In January, three members of the council voted for Mitchom to fill the position, while two were opposed.
Residents thought Mitchom would be sworn in at the next council meeting. Instead, they were befuddled when Ferguson’s city attorney, Stephanie Karr, said the council actually needed a supermajority 4-1 vote. Karr’s firm, Curtis, Heinz, Garrett and O'Keefe, has a contract to represent Ferguson (and 26 other St. Louis County municipalities) as city attorney.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sent a letter to Karr, referencing complaints that she was “blocking” Mitchom from being sworn in. Karr immediately became the focus of public meeting protests. People held up signs that read “3:2,” referring to the initial 3-2 city council vote, and “Stop the Karr-uption.”
After Mitchom’s induction into the council on February 23, protesters criticized council members for not signing the consent decree, a negotiated agreement between Ferguson and the Justice Department after a federal civil rights investigation described corrupt and racist practices in city's police department and municipal court.
The council has refused to sign the consent decree -- which mandates officer training and other efforts to protect citizens' rights and improve police-community relations -- unless the DOJ accepts amendments proposed by the city. The amendments would extend deadlines, lower monitoring fees, and remove requirements about mandatory staffing and higher police salaries, among other provisions.
Earlier this month, Mitchom told The Huffington Post she was excited about uniting the city.
“I don’t believe we’re going to go under,” Mitchom said. “I believe if we all work together, we can make this one Ferguson. We can do what’s good for all of us. This is going to be an opportunity for me to be a part of the healing and just coming together as one Ferguson.”
On April 23 of last year, long before she became a political candidate, Mitchom published an opinion column in The St. Louis American. “As I read the Department of Justice’s reports on the Ferguson Police Department and Darren Wilson,” she wrote, “I asked myself over and over again, how I could not have known about these blatant injustices against African Americans when I have lived in Ferguson for close to 10 years?”
Ferguson now faces a DOJ lawsuit for failing to sign the consent decree. The suit is expected to cost the city millions.
This story is published as part of a partnership between The Huffington Post and The St. Louis American.