Ferguson voters select two black candidates for City Council

Ferguson voters select two black candidates for City Council
A man walks past a painted and boarded up exterior of a business in Ferguson, Missouri

FERGUSON - Residents elected two African-American candidates to Ferguson's city council on Tuesday in the Missouri city's first municipal election since a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teen, triggering months of sometimes violent protests.

Tuesday's election was seen by activists and residents as a critical step toward addressing racially discriminatory practices that thrust the St. Louis suburb into the national spotlight after Michael Brown, 18, was killed last August.

Eight candidates, including four African-Americans, were vying for three seats on the council in Ferguson, where two-thirds of residents are black but the city's leadership has long been dominated by whites.

Ferguson has about 21,000 residents but has had only two black council members since its incorporation in 1894, including current Councilman Dwayne James, who was not up for re-election Tuesday.

Voter turnout surged with 29 per cent of registered voters showing up at the polls, compared with an average of around 12 per cent in Ferguson and the broader area for off-year elections held in April, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Residents elected Ella Jones, a black woman, and Municipal Judge Wesley Bell, who ran against another African-American candidate in the ward where Michael Brown lived, according to preliminary results.

Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher, who is white, also won election to the council, under unofficial results.

No incumbents were running, and activists have said it is imperative that change-minded individuals gain seats on the council, which will be charged with selecting a new city manager, who in turn hires and supervises the police chief and all other city employees, with the exception of the city clerk.

Both the previous police chief and city manager resigned, as did Ferguson's municipal judge, after the US Justice Department said in March that it found widespread racially discriminatory practices in the police department and the municipal court.

BLACK REPRESENTATION

Brown's shooting during a confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson triggered months of sometimes violent protests and spurred a national debate over police treatment of minorities.

A county grand jury declined to indict Wilson for Brown's death and the US Justice Department also declined to pursue charges against the officer, who resigned from the department.

Community activists in Ferguson say a lack of adequate representation of African-Americans in the municipal government has contributed to a range of racially discriminatory practices by police and city leaders.

"This may be a little municipal election, but ... city council can have a tremendous impact in the community," attorney Denise Lieberman, who has helped run a voter protection programme for the Advancement Project civil rights organisation, told Reuters.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said reforms are already under way and do not depend upon new council members.

"People in general want to see change," Knowles said in a telephone interview. "I don't think any candidate who is running for office or anyone on the current City Council has said they want to keep things the way they are."

Knowles is considered a seventh member of the council, so the new members are to join four incumbents.

A heavy thunderstorm that hit the area on Tuesday did little to dampen turnout.

Voter registration was up about 4.6 per cent in the past nine months to more than 12,000 voters, according to St. Louis County records.

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