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Opinion: A tough week for Black officials

It was a rough week for black elected officials in St. Louis. Just a few days into 2019 and local media was buzzing with controversies big and small.

Bruce Franks, the activist-turned-legislator from south St. Louis, was the subject of a long investigation by KMOV reporter Lauren Trager. Trager, as you may recall, was the journalist who first reported the sexual misconduct allegations against Governor Eric Greitens that eventually led to his resignation. This time Trager turned her attention to time sheets from the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE). Franks had been receiving a pay check from SLATE, which is funded by local, state and federal tax dollars, while also serving as a state legislator. That in and of itself raises concerns. Concerns that a spokeman for Mayor Lyda Krewson said caused the mayor to order Franks be fired earlier in 2018. But Trager and KMOV allege that Franks’ time sheets show that the state rep was being paid by SLATE for time he was not actually working at SLATE, as demonstrated by his own social media postings and agendas from out of town speaking engagements. 

Trager’s investigation extended into a look at the working conditions and spending practices and SLATE, which is headed by Krewson appointee and Franks ally, Alice Prince, who is also black. Prince sat for an interview with Trager to defend her office and her handling of the Franks matter. Franks did not. Instead, he went to Facebook to allege that he was being attacked because of his activism on behalf of black youth.

Meanwhile, moves by two new officials on their first full day in office, brought anger and tears from some and cheers from others.

In St. Louis County, new prosecutor Wesley Bell, wasted no time in cleaning house, as he fired several longtime assistant prosecutors, including Kathi Alizadeh, who was responsible for presenting evidence to the grand jury in the shooting of Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in 2014. According to reporter Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch, Alizadeh was escorted out of her former workplace by St. Louis County Police.

The actions were not unexpected. In fact, the assistant prosecutors had made moves just a few weeks ago to protect themselves from their new incoming boss by voting to unionize for the first time. And who did they select as their union? The St. Louis City police union and their spokesman—and poster child for the need for police reform in America—Jeff Roorda. It’s really kind of unbelievable when you think about it. The people in charge of prosecuting misconduct by police voted to join the organization whose mission is to defend any officer charged with misconduct. Sure, no conflict of interest there!

Wesley Bell has his work cut out for him. Cleaning house on Day 1, as well as his announced changes to how his office will handle certain kinds of crimes in St. Louis County, is a signal that he’s not afraid of a fight. I wish him luck, as we all should. He’s going to need it. The police union plays dirty and they play to win, in the court room, in politics, and in the battle for public opinion.

New St. Louis City Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler also has his work cut out for him, and he may have made it even harder on himself after his first day house cleaning. 

The recorder of deeds office is not the prosecutors office. To say the stakes are much lower is an understatement. Lives do not hang in the balance. In fact, few people even know what this office does and even fewer know why we vote to elect the person who heads it at all. But we all know one thing: there are jobs in that office. Precious city jobs with benefits and pensions. And a few of those positions quickly opened up this week as Butler made clear: there’s a new sheriff in town and those loyal to the old sheriff aren’t welcome.

Teary-eyed faces sat in front of cameras Wednesday telling how hurt they were at what they called their unfair firing by Butler. They said they were given no cause and can only imagine it was political retribution. Butler declined to be interviewed by the TV reporter who barged into his office. Instead, venerable political hack Gentry Trotter, described on the Channel 4 newscast as a spokesperson for the office, said he would look into it.

All three fired employees interviewed by KMOV were black. But not everyone who was let go was black. One who was not interviewed may present the biggest problem for Butler down the road—the wife of Alderman Joe Vaccaro. Vaccaro told KMOV that he did not think what Butler did was smart. Time and the resulting lawsuits will tell.

Local media also reported this week on campaign fines levied against Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and Board President Lewis Reed both for reporting errors stemming from their last campaigns.

A common factor in all of this week’s negative stories against black elected officials is that none were willing to be interviewed to discuss the controversy. I think that’s a mistake. 

Are black officials treated differently than white officials? Yes, I think so. But the press is not the enemy, despite what the president says. And while no elected official will like everything that is ever reported about them, answering questions is part of the job. Most of the specifics of these matters will be forgotten by this time next month. But how these leaders handled them may not.

Antonio French

antonio@thenorthsider.com Antonio French is the publisher of MetroSTL.com, The NorthSider and SouthSider community newspapers. Born and raised in north St. Louis, he is a social entrepreneur and former two-term St. Louis City alderman. He lives in the O'Fallon Park neighborhood with his wife, son, and four rescue dogs. Follow him on Twitter at @antoniofrench.

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