LOUIS COUNTY CITIES CHALLENGE MUNICIPAL REFORMS
A dozen north St. Louis County municipalities on Nov. 18 filed a lawsuit challenging a new Missouri law that seeks to reform municipal court operations and deter cities from relying on revenue from traffic fines and court fees as a funding source. The challenge centers on provisions of the law that apply only to St. Louis County rather than statewide, a practice the Missouri Constitution generally prohibits.
The General Assembly passed the law at issue, Senate Bill 5, earlier this year in response to numerous federal investigations, reports by independent watchdog groups and news stories documenting abusive policing and municipal court practices geared toward maximizing revenue for cash-strapped cities, often while ignoring the constitutional rights of defendants. Although such practices aren’t limited to St. Louis County, cities there have been the focus of most of the recent attention to the issue.
The lawsuit in part targets a provision of the law that lowered the existing statutory cap on the revenue cities can collect from traffic fines and fees from 30 percent of a city’s operating budget to 20 percent for most Missouri cities but only 12.5 percent for those in St. Louis County. The lawsuit also challenges provisions that require St. Louis County municipalities – but not other Missouri cities – to adhere to certain minimum operational standards or potentially face disincorporation and mandating that municipal police departments secure independent accreditation within six years.
By applying only to St. Louis County municipalities, the lawsuit contends those provisions are unconstitutional “special laws,” rendering them void and unenforceable. The lawsuit also claims that various provisions of the bill would impose increased costs on cities throughout Missouri without providing state funding in violation of the unfunded mandate provision of the constitution’s Hancock Amendment.
In a statement, Attorney General Chris Koster, who is responsible for defending state laws in court, said: “The law seeks to stop municipalities from abusing citizens through excessive ticketing practices. My office will vigorously defend the bill against this legal challenge.”
The north St. Louis County cities involved in the lawsuit are Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda Village Hills, Glen Echo Park, Bel Ridge, Bel-Nor, Pagedale, Moline Acres, Uplands Park, Vinita Park, Northwoods and Wellston. Koster had sued several of those cities a year ago for alleged violations of the old state law governing collection of traffic fines and fees. Those cases were later dropped as cities came into compliance.
LEGISLATIVE LEADERS CALL HEARING ON SYRIAN REFUGEES
The top leaders of the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly have called a rare joint meeting of the House Budget Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee to discuss potential options, if any, for preventing Syrian refugees from being located in Missouri. The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. on Nov. 30 in the Missouri Capitol.
The two committees are responsible for writing the annual state budget, and majority Republican members could seek to punish state agencies that cooperate with the federal government on refugee resettlement, although it doesn’t immediately appear that state agencies play a role in the process. Also, given that the asylum process takes more than two years, if there were a budget impact on Missouri, it would be years away.
Citing fears, but no actual evidence, that Islamic terrorists might infiltrate the country posing as Syrian refugees, many top Missouri Republicans, including several GOP candidates for governor, have called on Gov. Jay Nixon to refuse to allow Syrian refugees to be resettled in the state. In response, Nixon, a Democrat, noted that immigration is an exclusively federal issue and that governors have no authority to deny entry to those granted legal status by the federal government.
According to a Nov. 18 letter by Missouri Department of Social Services Director Brian Kinkade responding to an inquiry by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, Missouri plays no role in deciding if refugees are settled here and has no authority to reject them. Kinkade said refuge services are provided by private, non-governmental agencies under contracts that are 100 percent federally funded. Those services include job training and placement, language education, case management, special services for the elderly and support for school aged children.
According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch on-line graphic citing data from the U.S. Department of State Refugee Processing Center 14,292 foreign refugees from 48 countries have resettled in Missouri since 2002, including 29 Syrians. Most of the refugees who came to Missouri – 7,568 — resettled in St. Louis city. Kansas City accounted for another 4,671 refugees, while Columbia came in a distant third with 1,085. Only two other Missouri cities were home to more than 100 refugees – Jefferson City with 222 and Springfield with 185.
AUDITOR HIGHLIGHTS COMMON SUNSHINE LAW VIOLATIONS
State Auditor Nicole Galloway issued a report on Nov. 23 identifying the top five most common violations of Missouri’s open government meetings and records law, popularly known as the Sunshine Law. The report was based on audit findings various governmental entities, primarily cities, counties and school districts, issued between January 2014 and June 2015.
The top Sunshine Law violation, according to the report, is discussion in closed meetings of subjects that by law can only be considered in open session. The others were failure to adequately document the reason for closed meetings; failure to keep minutes of open meetings; lack of policies ensuring public access to government documents; and failure to approve meeting minutes in a timely manner.
“The Sunshine Law exists to ensure government operates with full accountability and transparency,” Galloway said in a news release. “When government entities comply with the Sunshine Law, it allows citizens the opportunity to fully participate in the decisions that impact them at every level. It is my hope governments will use this report to improve their operations to be more accountable to the people of Missouri.”
PAST MISSOURI GOVERNORS JOIN NIXON TO TALK ECO DEVO
All six living Missouri governors participated in a panel discussion on economic development on Nov. 20 in Kansas City. During the event, current Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, touted the fact that unemployment in Missouri has dropped to 5 percent, its lowest rate since April 2007. Nixon also said the state is experiencing strong growth in foreign exports.
The gathering was the first time since Nixon took office in January 2009 that he and all of his living predecessors had appeared together. The former governors participating in the discussion were Republicans Kit Bond (1973-1977, 1981-1985), John Ashcroft (1985-1993) and Matt Blunt (2005-2009); and Democrats Roger Wilson (2000-2001) and Bob Holden (2001-2005).