NORMANDY, Mo. — This St. Louis suburb has problems that may sound familiar to anyone who followed the unrest in nearby Ferguson.
The city budget relies on tickets and court revenue. Its population of 5,000 is more than two-thirds black, but African-Americans are underrepresented on the city council, and the police force is overwhelmingly white. The lawyer who until recently served as municipal court judge owed tens of thousands in back taxes and acknowledged misconduct in his private practice.
Normandy isn’t Ferguson. But Ferguson’s neighboring municipalities in St. Louis County share many of the same issues. While Ferguson’s April 7 municipal election to replace half of the city council has received national attention and intense interest from outside organizations, hardly anyone is paying attention to elections the same day in Normandy and other St. Louis County towns.
The 100 or so people — every one of them black — who had to report to Normandy municipal court on Wednesday evening probably wish there was more interest. Even in St. Louis County — where Ferguson and many of the other small cities use their police departments and municipal courts to raise revenue — Normandy sticks out. The city brings in a shocking 40 percent of its general revenue from fines and fees — one of the highest percentages in St. Louis County.
Normandy Mayor Patrick Green recently claimed the municipal court system actually loses money — if you include expenses for the entire police department. Green said he considers an effort by the Missouri state legislature to limit traffic ticket revenue an attack on Normandy and its officers.
“It’s an insult to this community and its police force,” Green said. “Our police aren’t out there ‘producing revenue.’ They are out there fighting crime.”
Monique Abby, a black lawyer who lives in Ferguson, was filling in as acting municipal judge in Normandy this week. That’s because the former judge, Charles Kirksey, stepped down last month after a local news station revealed that he owed more than $100,000 in back taxes and had admitted to a “pattern of misconduct” in his private practice.
Inside the quiet courtroom, there appeared to be no prosecutor. People gasped and shook their heads as they heard how much money some of the defendants owed.
In Ferguson, one of the first changes the city made to its municipal court system after protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in August was to eliminate the fine for “failure to appear,” which could quickly mount for defendants who missed court dates for minor tickets. But in Normandy, so-called FTAs — failure to appears — remain a nice way to pad the city coffers: $100 each, plus $26.50 in court costs for each charge.
That meant penalties for some defendants could have topped the $1,000 maximum that municipal courts are allowed to impose. The judge dropped some charges for defendants who owed the most money, but some still had to pay as much as $800. While the U.S. Justice Department’s report on Ferguson’s municipal court recommended the city accept partial payments, Normandy refuses to accept payments of less than $100 per month.
Harry Turner, 35, of St. Louis, said he’s been to Normandy court more than twice, each time in connection with traffic violations. Turner was pulled over in a nearby municipality because he allegedly had a license plate bulb out. The officer arrested him because he owed Normandy money, and the city issued a warrant for his arrest after he missed court. He had to post a $500 bond to get out of jail.
“Court costs are too high — especially, for those of us who are trying to make our payments,” Turner said. “I feel like a lot of municipalities are here for revenue. I don’t think they’re here to clean the streets up.”
Another man who declined to provide his name estimated he owed approximately $400 to Normandy, which he said is one of the cities where he was most likely to be pulled over.
“They act like you have to have money right there. Like you don’t have kids and bills, and other responsibilities,” he said. “They pull you over for the pettiest things.”
But Normandy, he said, isn’t where he’s most likely to get pulled over. “No one is worse than Pine Lawn,” he said.
Normandy has 31 full-time officers who also patrol five nearby municipalities. That entire area encompasses less than three square miles, according to a new report from Better Together St. Louis. That means Normandy has more than 10 officers per square mile and more than four officers per 1,000 people — much more than the national average.
The police department has an annual budget of $2 million. Its municipal court was reaping $1.6 million as of a few years ago.
Normandy defending a lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who contends the town is violating a state law that limits revenue that municipalities can derive from traffic fines and court costs to 30 percent of the budget.
Despite Normandy’s problems, there seems little interest in Tuesday’s election. Most of the candidates didn’t even bother to respond to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for its voters’ guide.
Half of the city council’s eight seats are up for election, and all but one of the incumbents who are running face an opponent. Some of the council members said in interviews that their city is much different from Ferguson and they weren’t inclined to make changes.
Bob Reid, a white member of the city council who isn’t up for re-election until next year, said he hadn’t read the Justice Department’s Ferguson report in its entirety. But he praised Normandy’s community policing. “I think that’s a little different from Ferguson,” Reid said.
Terry Gannon, a white woman who represents Normandy’s Ward 3, is unopposed in the election. She said Normandy was “very different” from Ferguson.
“We have a certified police department. We have community policing. We have a balanced budget and an auditor,” Gannon said in an interview. “We have a city council meeting with our auditor every quarter and go over finances in detail. We’re nothing like Ferguson.”