Our Call: Council leaves the people out of people’s business

Editorial

How can you conduct the people’s business without the people?

That is the question we’re stunned that we now have to ask of St. Louis County government. But it’s one that must be asked as the County Council has voted the last two weeks to move public comments at its meetings to the end of the agenda, rather than the beginning where it has been for nearly two decades.

It’s alarming that the council says it’s moved past an era of corruption to a new era of transparency, and then one of its first acts is to restrict the speech of county residents and the ability of reporters and photographers to do their jobs reporting on public meetings. It doesn’t instill confidence in the new council, whose longest-serving member has only served four years, to respect the rights of residents and the Constitution.

After two weeks of intense public comments, Council Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas of the 6th District, R-Oakville, has spearheaded these and other changes to meetings to limit “activism” and “demonstrations.” It’s nothing the council hasn’t seen before, but it’s new to Trakas, so this was a test of his leadership. And we’re sorry to say that he failed.

When Trakas took office in January 2017, he vowed to increase the people’s access to public comments by increasing the time members of the public had to speak, guaranteeing them three minutes instead of the one minute the county had routinely granted them. He wrote in our candidate questionnaire that he wanted to “foster greater attendance and engagement” at council meetings by moving them to a later time. And to his credit, he led the charge to do that.

As a result, the number of public speakers at council meetings has grown exponentially compared to past years. As we predicted, it’s now easier for people to get to Clayton to sign up to speak, so they show up and speak their mind. It’s why we supported that change.

We’re not sure what happened to the 2017 Trakas, but given newfound power as presiding officer, the 2019 Trakas says that activists who attended the Oct. 28 and Nov. 5 council meetings — specifically, a group protesting what it sees as police brutality against African Americans, and volunteers upset at how the county animal shelter is run — “infringe on the rights of others” to feel safe to speak at council meetings, so the First Amendment no longer protects those loud groups.

There are many problems with ths line of thinking, but we’ll start with one: Everyone has a right to speak at council meetings.

Setting up these new rules to keep some people from supposedly infringing on another’s rights is now infringing on everyone’s rights, including the people Trakas is trying to protect and including his own constituents in South County, who historically make up a disproportionate number of the council speakers.

He’s the teacher who punishes the whole class because a few schoolchildren spoke when he didn’t want them to.

To drive his newfound power home, Trakas on Nov. 5 lectured the class — er, council crowd — that some public bodies like the St. Louis Board of Aldermen don’t take public comments at all. And by the way, the media should stay in its “designated area” and not take photos close to the council. Be good, children, or you won’t get your candy.

But public comments on county business are a right of the public, and it’s elected officials’ duty to listen as part of their job even if citizens are loud or demonstrative, or say words that someone in the crowd doesn’t like.

And who decides whether a resident is too “loud”? Is the resident whose son died in the county jail who cries loudly as she’s talking to the council going to be dragged out because she’s too loud?

Who decides which residents are “activists” and which are not? For more than a year, many Affton residents went to the council, wearing green and standing while their fellow group members spoke, trying to “Save Tower Tee.” At the time, Trakas applauded them for their dedication. Were they activists? Or were they concerned citizens petitioning their government, a right guaranteed in the United States Constitution? What’s the difference?

Trakas said that when these unnamed speakers made other speakers feel unsafe, they gave up their First Amendment rights.

But absent a real threat rather than just a perceived one, this seems like county officials are simply trying to shut people up.

Quite frankly, listening to residents from the dais in Clayton is a key part of the job.

If these council members voting to change public comments don’t want their office and everything that comes with it like those pesky county residents and their citizen statements, they don’t have to file for re-election. Give your seat to someone who respects the rights of residents.

As part of the new rules, Trakas literally set up a rope barrier between the public and the podium, with access granted only by a county police officer.

The symbolism is clear: You speak if we want you to speak. But it’s actually the other way around: The council serves at the will of the people. The council needs to stay in its designated area and allow the public to speak.