MAPLEWOOD PROP J: PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE By Rob Birenbaum, an opinion

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MAPLEWOOD PROP J:
PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE
By Rob Birenbaum

Proposition J, which will be on the April 2 ballot for Maplewood voters, states, “There shall be a defense attorney that serves as counsel to persons appearing before the municipal court and accused of (a) driving while license or driving privilege is cancelled, suspended, or revoked; (b) driving without a valid license or driving privilege; (c) failure to have the required minimum amount of motor vehicle insurance as determined by the state department of revenue; or (d) operating a motor vehicle that is not validly registered and/or displaying a current and valid license plate.”

I believe those who are advocating for the above amendment (especially, the mayor and city council) have good intentions. I am sensitive to the needs of economically-stressed citizens, I support government assistance programs and I am always in favor of my taxes being increased to fund them. However, I feel that Proposition J is not well-thought-out, lacks necessary research and presents more potential problems than it might address.

(1) At the January 24 Town Hall meeting about the upcoming ballot propositions, Council Member Nick Homa (speaking on behalf of the mayor and council) said that the taxpayer-funded defense attorney is designed to help “people who don’t have the means,” yet he also said, “the defense attorney services would be available to anyone regardless of income,” which seems contrary to the initiative’s intention. Thus, the city would not differentiate between people who are trying to do the right thing, but don’t have the money to pay for insurance, licensing or sales tax on their vehicles versus those who skirt the law by choice. Since the city wouldn’t make that distinction, that means in some cases (how many?) taxpayer money would be used to defend people who are capable of meeting their obligations, but choose not to. Hence, the city would be paying to support defendants across the board when the true reason for each one falling afoul of the law is not known.

(2) At the January 24 Town Hall, Mr. Homa said in the same thought that the city doesn’t know what the cost would be to have a taxpayer-funded defense attorney and “we like to make data driven decisions for how this will impact our taxpayers,” which is a contradiction! Their approach was not “data driven,” as Mr. Homa touted; it was exactly the opposite. Estimating costs should have been one of the early exercises when considering the proposed amendment and that process should have been completed before the measure was put on the ballot. It’s possible that a concerted effort would have demonstrated that the idea might be too costly, but it doesn’t appear that the mayor and council considered that. Why would the council not research the fees in advance? It doesn’t make sense that a governing body would float a proposition without having some idea of its cost.

A simple calculation that should have been done during the drafting of the proposal, but wasn’t, follows:
(a) How many cases came before the City of Maplewood court in 2023 that met the guidelines of the proposed amendment?
(b) How many of those cases is it estimated the city-funded defense attorney would handle?
(c) How much would a defense attorney charge the city per hour?
(d) How many hours is it estimated a defense attorney would need, on average, for each case?

All the drafters of Prop J needed to do while considering the amendment was multiply (c) by (d); then, take the product of that and multiply it by (b). By using a few different values for (b), various scenarios could have been developed, thus establishing a range of what the annual cost is estimated to be for the city to provide a taxpayer-funded defense attorney for vehicle law violators.

It is indefensible for the mayor and council to propose an amendment like this to the city charter without providing at least an estimate of the cost to taxpayers.

At the end of February, a little more than four weeks before the election (and, again, something the mayor and council should have done much earlier), the city posted Prop J FAQs on its website and stated that, based on 2023 data, “594 individuals would be eligible to receive representation from the defense attorney,” something Mr. Homa didn’t know on January 24. Thus, cost-estimate scenarios could now be developed (though we don’t know what a defense attorney would charge and the city hasn’t provided any estimates of that).

(3) At the January 24 Town Hall, Mr. Homa said the mayor and council think a defense attorney might be able to be added without any additional costs to the city (or maybe “a slight increase”) by changing the prosecutor from a retainer-fee-plus-litigation-fee model to just billable hours. He said they think they can “get attorneys for both these positions [meaning prosecution and defense] that is comparable to where we are now with what we spend monthly [meaning for the prosecutor only], but we don’t have any formal documentation to back that up, so there’s still some work that needs to be done to do the legwork there and find out what the actual costs will be.” Then, at the end of February, the city posted this statement on the Prop J FAQs, “If Proposition J passes, the city will not change its annual budget for legal expenses and will instead renegotiate or re-bid its legal services contract to meet its modified legal personnel obligations within the existing $250,000 annual budget.” No data were provided to support what on the surface appears to be ambitious and, simply, wishful. Again, this is an example of work that should have been done before approving the ordinance and putting it on the ballot.

Did the mayor and council ask the current prosecutor how many hours she spent in 2023 prosecuting cases, so they could test their theory by simply multiplying the hours by what the prosecutor’s hourly fee would be (if she weren’t on a retainer plan) and compare that to how much she was paid under the current model, to see if achieving savings was realistic? Attorneys keep copious notes (especially associated with billing), so this information was attainable upon request. To get a comparable price, they could have then contacted another attorney (from a firm smaller than Lewis Rice, the one which employs the current city prosecutor) and asked how much the hourly charge would be to prosecute cases in Maplewood, based on the number of hours the current prosecutor indicated she spent in 2023. This simple, potential cost exercise would have been illuminating, but the mayor and council did not do it.

Interestingly, on January 30, Mr. Homa sent a letter to City Manager Amber Withycombe, citing “questions raised” during the Town Hall and requesting “information on the costs of legal services…for each of the months in calendar year 2023.” This is not an example of being concerned about costs to taxpayers because it should have been done while the proposition was being considered, before it was ever put on the ballot. Requesting this information six days after the Town Hall was not being proactive; it was reactive. It became politically necessary, due to pressure from voters; plus, based on Mr. Homa’s written justification for the request (i.e., citing “questions raised”), it likely would not have been made, otherwise.

Proving my previous point that cost information could be easily obtained from attorneys, Ms. Withycombe responded to Mr. Homa in only eight days with cost data which were promptly provided to her by Lewis Rice. Unfortunately, as Ms. Withycombe stated in her letter to Mr. Homa, “Lewis Rice does not separately itemize litigation work [meaning billable hours] performed by the City Attorney and the Prosecuting Attorney, which is often collaborative in nature.” So, follow up would be in order (though I doubt the mayor and city council did that), to ask Lewis Rice to provide an estimated breakdown of how much litigation work was for city business versus prosecutions, in dollars and hours. An experienced legal professional who had done the work in question could surely make an educated, informed guess to help the mayor and council in their planning (which would also allow the council to seek price quotes from other attorneys).

Both of the letters cited above are public information and were included in the agenda packet for the February 13 council meeting.

(4) Related to the cost for the city to use taxpayer funds for a no-charge defense attorney, Mr. Homa stated at the January 24 Town Hall, “this would have to be fiscally responsible and fit within our current budget constraints for me to vote on it and approve it.” That’s an odd claim, considering he (along with the mayor and council) had already voted on it and approved it (without any knowledge of the fiscal requirements) or it wouldn’t be on the ballot. Then, Mr. Homa said, “I don’t think we can find out how much it’s gonna cost unless this is approved.” If the costs can be magically determined after approval, why couldn’t, at the very least, a reasonable estimate be made in advance to help voters make an informed decision? Expecting residents to vote something into law for which the costs will be figured out later is an unreasonable request.

(5) At the January 24 Town Hall, Mr. Homa said, “no matter where you’re from, if you are cited in Maplewood and you come into Maplewood Municipal Court, the services of the defense attorney would be open to you.” Do the drafters of Prop J know, historically (or just in 2023, for example), how many of the people cited for one or more of the four vehicle infractions in the amendment were Maplewood residents? That could be determined from police records. Logic dictates, based on the huge number of cars that pass through Maplewood on a daily basis (especially on Manchester and Big Bend), that a significant number of the violators would not be Maplewood residents. Maplewood voters need to decide if using taxpayer money to provide legal defense services to people who are not residents of Maplewood is sensible, fair and desirable and is more important than projects that can directly help the city and its taxpaying residents.

On February 27, Mr. Homa commented on the Maplewood, MO Facebook page in response to concerns about Prop J. When addressing spending taxpayer money to defend non-Maplewood residents, he pointed out, “Both the municipal judge and prosecuting attorney are paid using taxpayer dollars.” He further mentioned, “Maplewood Police are paid with taxpayer dollars and are issuing citations to residents and non-residents alike.” In a final attempt to draw an equivalency that is not there, he concluded, “So, our taxpayer dollars are already spent on law enforcement and legal services for non-Maplewood residents…” Providing law enforcement and prosecuting defendants with taxpayer dollars is not providing the defendants with “legal services,” as Mr. Homa stretched. It is providing the City of Maplewood with legal services. I believe needy defendants deserve advice (legal and financial) and, as suggested at the end of this piece, there are ways to do that without asking taxpayers to fund it.

(6) At the January 24 Town Hall, Mr. Homa posited that providing a defense attorney could possibly save the city time and money because the process would be smoother and more efficient, with the likelihood being that cases would be settled quickly. In his February 27 comments on Facebook, Mr. Homa also said that Prop J “may result in the defense attorney and prosecutor collaborating and the prosecutor recommending a charge be amended…” And at the end of February, the city posted this statement on the Prop J FAQs, “…defendants who are unable to pay for effective counsel can be unprepared for court, and their lack of representation can lead to additional costs to the court through delays and appeals.” It is true that defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes work together to settle cases expeditiously. However, defense attorneys, whose mission is to advocate for their clients, just as often (if not more often), extend the legal process by requesting delays and getting new court dates, to give them time to mount a defense and to allow their clients time to repair certain conditions that might make them appear favorable to judges once cases are eventually heard. So, it is possible that providing a defense attorney at taxpayer expense could cost the city more time and money to resolve cases, not less, by virtue of what often occurs in the prosecution vs. defense model of our judicial system.

(7) Under Prop J, a defendant could commit the infractions over and over again and continue to receive free defense counsel from the City of Maplewood. As Mr. Homa stated at the January 24 Town Hall, “if they came in multiple times and they’re in Maplewood Municipal Court, it is any of these four offenses, they would have access to the defense attorney and representation from them.” A citizen then asked if there was a limit to how many times the city would pay to defend a violator; Mr. Homa said, “not that I’m aware of” and Ms. Withycombe offered, “I’m not sure administratively that we explored that.” This is another example of an egregious hole in the proposition and something important that was not considered.

There are too many unknowns with Prop J because it was not seriously researched or fully thought out before being put on the ballot. A small amount of information was added in dribs and drabs over the past few weeks, but it has been insufficient, was not fleshed out, did not allay any specific concerns and appears to simply be in reaction to objections to the proposition in the community. All in all, the attempts on the part of the mayor and council to provide information after the fact is an example of the ever-famous too little, too late.

During the 45 minutes Mr. Homa advocated for Prop J at the January 24 Town Hall, he said more than 10 times, “I don’t know” or “I [or we] don’t have the data” or “we still have work to do.” Granted, the mayor and council might not know exactly, 100%, how a new program would work or what the anticipated costs would be to the dollar, but a clearer concept and cost estimates (based on a few scenarios) should be expected, at a minimum. Admitting to lacking critical information, as illustrated in the above three quotes, is damning. Hope and good intentions are not a strategy.

This effort on the part of the mayor and council is a textbook example of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. It is faulty, sloppy legislation – regardless of its reason or intention – and shouldn’t have been placed on the ballot in its current form.

There are surely better ways to help truly needy, cash-strapped individuals navigate the vehicle infractions cited in Prop J once the shortcomings I have laid out are addressed. Here are just a few ideas: seek money from grants, foundations or philanthropic organizations and individuals to fund this effort, rather than from taxpayers; utilize the city’s social worker as a court advocate and financial counselor for defendants, instead of a more costly defense attorney; consult with legal aid organizations, such as Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and ArchCity Defenders, either to provide services to defendants or to give advice to the city on how to go about a program to help low income individuals; and I am sure there are other alternatives worth considering.

For the reasons stated above, Maplewood residents should VOTE NO ON PROP J on April 2, 2024.

Editor: Rob Birenbaum is a former Maplewood business owner, longtime commercial property owner in the downtown area and was Chair of the Special Business District from 1997-2018.

37 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Rob! Thoroughly stated and documented within any related scope of decision making criteria. Your time and attention with this kind of detail is much appreciated. You have long taken a sound and professional stance on issues that support our city.

  2. Well explained piece. It’s time for a change at city hall. Unbelievable how bad this prop is for the people of Maplewood. Either the council is incompetent or they are afraid to speak up

  3. Mr. Birenbaum, thank you for the thorough and comprehensive excision of nearly every utterance I have made about Prop J this year. As you know, I fully support Prop J for multiple reasons. I know that you are not in support of the proposition. Totally okay that we don’t agree on this proposition or its merits, but I would like to comment on a few points you made.

    (1) This prop was designed to help those who don’t have the means to hire an attorney. There is no means testing for use of the public defender and anyone that is cited for one of the four violations listed could be represented by the public defender. It is possible that there would be cases where people use the public defender when they could afford to hire their own private defense attorney. There is no way for the city to predict how often this might happen.

    (2) At the time of the 1/24/24 town hall at Schlafly, data was still being collected on the number of cases that came through Maplewood municipal court the prior year that fell under the four violations listed and costs/fees for the defense attorney. I’m never the smartest person in the room, so I’m okay saying “I don’t know” in those cases, and that is why I gave that answer so frequently at the 1/24 town hall. I do believe that I stated that the city was still working on gathering that data. You noted that the Prop J FAQs posted on the city website (Prop J FAQs) does provide some additional detail.

    (3) The City of Maplewood has budgeted $250,000/year for legal services over the last several years, save last year when $350,000 was budgeted due to the settlement of the class-action lawsuit. Since the city will direct the renegotiation and re-bidding of its legal services contract, it can ensure that all legal services costs fit within that $250,000 legal services umbrella. This means that staying within this budget is not “…ambitious and, simply, wishful”, but instead something that the city can control and make certain that chosen bids fall within those confines.

    With regard to my “reactive” nature in handling the questions that came forward at the town hall — I put forward the memo requesting legal services cost info and citing “questions raised” because I wanted that information to be made publicly available for you, Maplewood constituents, businesses, and property owners, to see. This data is not generally broken out as separate line items in the budget, so additional work had to be done to provide the detail around those costs.

    (4) Exploratory conversations around attorney costs, litigation fees, retainer versus fee based services, etc. have occurred. But those are just that, exploratory, until a contract is inked and we have hired an entity to provide legal services under the new system. That would not happen until an RFP for legal services goes out and those bids are assessed. That only occurs if and when Prop J is passed.

    (5) My understanding is that it is impossible for us to get that information. I asked months back and learned that Maplewood PD collects zip codes during traffic stops and when citations are issued, but that information is not able to be released. That makes it impossible to determine how many violators would be Maplewood residents versus non-residents.

    (6) My conversations with former municipal judges have led me to believe that the presence of a public defender will make our municipal court system operate with a higher level of efficiency. I trust the experts (the judges who oversee municipal courtroom proceedings) on this matter. However, I do not have data around how more efficient court proceedings translates as far as legal services cost savings.

    While I agree with you that Prop J is not a silver bullet that solves the root cause of this issue, I think it is a step in the right direction. It’s also a step that we can take without passing on any additional costs to our taxpayers, which seems like an important point. I’m in favor of all of the alternative mechanisms you listed – seeking money from grants (GrantMatch will help with this endeavor), foundations or philanthropic organizations (Maplewood Community Growth Fund checks this box), increased collaboration from our social worker, legal aid organization consults, etc. However, almost all of those alternatives result in some costs, and those costs don’t have a current budget allocation.

    I am hopeful that the privately funded Maplewood Community Growth Fund may also be able to assist in this area when it is up, running, and fully functional. Until then, I will continue to support Prop J, because it provides a way to help people navigate our municipal court system without increasing costs to our constituents.

    I’m happy to respond to these public criticisms of how I answered constituent questions that came to me during the Prop J town halls and via Facebook. If you would ever like to get more information from me directly or have a conversation, my cell phone number (217-556-7080) and email ([email protected]) are on the city website and I’m always available for a call. Even though we may be on opposite sides of this one, I appreciate your engagement.

    • “While I agree with you that Prop J is not a silver bullet that solves the root cause of this issue, I think it is a step in the right direction.”

      We’ll see what the voters think next week. It would be nice to see a bit of diversity in thought on this city council as many of us feel it’s simply a regurgitation of what Mayor Knapper thinks at any given moment. Also-some of the issues pointed out by Rob B. are BASICS that should’ve been thought of prior to ANY town halls.

      I think the reason this thing even got oxygen is because save for ONE sitting council member, the rest of you continue to blindly follow whatever “talking points” you get from our mayor. It’s not a good look.

      • It’s really insulting to say that council persons are blindly following the mayor. I’ve witnessed them voice their own opinions and worked through issues during council meetings and work sessions. To suggest there is lack of agency among councilpersons is incredible narrow minded and ignorant. They don’t always agree, but they do talk things through, go back, modify, review, and come to a compromise on important issues. Sometimes those issues align with the something the mayor is supporting, sometimes they don’t. That one sitting council member you referenced, has also endorsed the mayor. To me, that is significant. I appreciate disagreement and discourse among council, it elevates policy and understanding. I also appreciate the council’s willingness to compromise and consider differing perspectives when making a vote.
        Every idea from the mayor is not going to be perfect, but I think this is an important prop to start chipping away at the cycle of poverty that we know exists. I encourage you to send along some of your ideas and solutions on how to make this a more robust proposition. Community input is invaluable.

        • It’s honestly laughable to me that the current style of repeating each other and head nodding in total agreement that’s going on with this council is comparable to anything even close to the actual discussions and debate that was happening a couple of years ago with a much different council. Maybe some sort of actual debate is happening but that means it’s happening behind closed doors when it should be happening in open session.

          And perhaps you aren’t on social media but that endorsement from the one city councilperson disappeared without a trace sometime last week, though no one has spoken publicly about it (and I certainly don’t blame that singular council person given how they’ve been harassed and the entirety of their colleagues looked the other way or have been complicit in the harassment). You may notice the “endorsed by the entire council” posts have stopped too.

          Maybe those claims that the endorsement wasn’t totally above board weren’t so preposterous after all.

    • “Mr. Birenbaum, thank you for the thorough and comprehensive excision of nearly every utterance I have made about Prop J this year.”

      Good discussion between Rob and Nick after you make it past this sarcastic comment that seems to mock Rob for actually engaging with city government. Should he apologize for paying attention?

    • Nick: I acknowledge you taking it somewhat lightly in thanking me (tongue in cheek) for my “thorough and comprehensive excision of nearly every utterance” you have made about Prop J this year. I hope you appreciate that I didn’t single you out. You are the face of Prop J among the mayor and six council members and the only one making public statements. Had I come across comments from other elected officials related to my seven points, I would have surely included them.

      I did not plan to write a piece about Prop J. When I first read the amendment in late 2023, a few questions immediately came to mind, but I expected the answers would come out in the run-up to the election since I assumed that the mayor and council had done the background work to justify the change. When I watched the video of the January 24 Town Hall, even more questions surfaced and I was struck by how little substance there was to justify putting the proposition on the ballot at this time. So, I continued to follow the issue and eventually felt compelled to write about it, something I do not make a habit of doing, as this is the first time I have done anything like this. Plus, I have probably only commented on 40 South and its predecessor, Patch, maybe 10 times total, going all the way back to 2010 and it has almost always been about one of my tenants.

      I agree with you that it is far better for someone to admit they don’t know something rather than BS their way through it, so kudos to you for that. But, where we differ is I feel that you shouldn’t have had to invoke that mea culpa so many times. What was the rush to get the proposition on the ballot without doing the research first and getting as much data as possible (even if you couldn’t capture everything)? Why not finish collecting as much data as you could before finalizing and passing the ordinance? Had you done that, you would have had a stronger proposition with more solid information to back it up and your sales pitch to the public wouldn’t have been so difficult. I believe you actually hurt yourselves by prematurely putting the proposition to a vote. The justification for Prop J seems to be only that the mayor and council think it is a good idea.

      I have a background in research and evaluation, with a Master’s degree and 5+ years working in educational and social service settings from 1975-80 (with numerous research reports and a couple professional publications to my name), until I decided that a bad day around drums was better than a good day doing research and I jettisoned my original career path. My training, experience, knowledge, skills and grasp of current techniques pale next to you, but in my short research career we always did the work before coming to conclusions and making recommendations. I continued that stringent data-oriented practice while running retail and manufacturing businesses, owning real estate and working on projects for the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Maplewood. I just can’t get past the fact that this ordinance is being brought to a vote with such a woeful lack of research and background work on the part of those who are advancing it.

      – Rob

      • Overall, from what I know of him, Nick seems like a good guy and I hope that the “every utterance” was meant with some levity. But if there are any frustrations to how this is being received, now may be the time for him to point any ire at his fellow councilpersons who encouraged him to be the face of this prop rather than at a constituent who spent considerable and exhaustive effort doing research that our councilpersons should have done ahead of approving this charter change to the ballot.

        Changing our founding document particularly when we start transferring powers around should not be done hastily or without very good justification. Changing these powers back is difficult to do as well and mayors aren’t permanent positions – how will the people supporting this prop feel when the mayor appointing an entire legal department is someone they didn’t vote for?

      • This is exactly what I am only recently, in the past month, seeing is the problem with practically everything coming out of what appears to be a current-mayor-led agenda. It is incomplete, not-ready-for-prime-time, and is putting things ahead of the research, financial calculations and community input which is needed. It’s truly disconcerting.

  4. So some think that anyone, or at least most. who don’t follow the motor vehicle laws are doing so because they are too poor to become legal? I got news for you. There are plenty of poor people who manage to KEEP UP with State laws for legally driving their vehicles. And…many do without other things to do it! It’s the Law and should be followed by all drivers to ensure the safety of everyone else. There are consequences for not doing so and always have been. How does this Prop help law abiding citizens of Maplewood who are scraping by, but are managing to stay legal? It doesn’t. It may sound like good intentions, but the fact that the Mayor and council didn’t even bother to do their due diligence in finding out costs before putting it on the ballot speaks volumes. It seems to me this is being done for “Progressive brownie points.” When it comes to food, shelter, clothing, etc. I’m all for helping people have these necessities. But the tax payers of ONE municipality paying for those driving illegally, coming from ANYWHERE is not something I’m for. Vote NO!

    • Michele, my understanding of the intent is that people who are living check to check, and might cut corners or not be able to keep up with vehicle regulations (anyone who’s lost a day of work in the DMV line can relate), perhaps weighing which priority bills to address (food, shelter, clothing, vehicle) etc. MAY not keep up and, if cited, MAY not realize what their best option, legally and financially speaking, is when facing these citations in court — and hence a defense attorney can inform them, speed up the process, and potentially keep them from falling further behind as a result. (Similar to when one unexpected health emergency can have a spiraling effect on a family’s ability to get by.)

      As to: “How does this Prop help law abiding citizens of Maplewood who are scraping by, but are managing to stay legal? It doesn’t.” UNLESS, of course, in their monthly battle to scrape by, they find themselves falling short or missing that deadline at the DMV and then they get caught up in this. Then it surely does.

      Without even advocating for this proposition, surely folks can allow for that rationale rather than the simple “Oh, those progressives are trying to make the city pay for lawbreakers!” dismissal.

  5. Do folks know if this same kind of “due diligence” was followed when the ordinance was revised to give the Mayor and City council authority to hire a prosecuting attorney? I’m genuinely curious.

    I’m a civil rights attorney who has advocated for reforms to our criminal legal system for over a decade, including in the area of indigent criminal defense. Although my practice is mainly in federal court, I have appeared in multiple municipal courts. Prop J, among other things, gives the City council the ability to appoint a defense attorney for certain limited municipal matters. It’s in line with what Richmond Heights does, and I think this will result in more fair proceedings, and ultimately inure to the benefit of our entire community.

    Rob: I’m not sure what you’re basing this opinion on: “defense attorneys, whose mission is to advocate for their clients, just as often (if not more often), extend the legal process by requesting delays and getting new court dates, to give them time to mount a defense and to allow their clients time to repair certain conditions that might make them appear favorable to judges once cases are eventually heard.” In my experience, having defense attorneys in the room improves outcomes.

    Prop J limits the matters on which a defense attorney would be involved to certain traffic-related offenses – specifically, alleged violations of ordinances which require drivers to maintain a valid license and registration, and current insurance. Why do we require that? As a matter of public safety. We don’t punish people for the sake of punishing them–or at least, we shouldn’t. Having a defense attorney involved in these matters gives drivers assistance to ensure they have proper license, registration, and insurance, so that our roads are safer. And it does so while protecting their rights so they don’t get caught in the municipal court’s fines & fees trap.

    I’m glad people are engaging with City council and asking questions about Prop J and other matters. And I’m happy to see how responsive city councilmembers and the City Manager have been to those questions. I’m proud to have a City council not afraid of making bold change in furtherance of equity and justice.

    • To me your comment implies that Richmond Heights has a defense attorney on staff because this is what Prop J is asking for. Looking at their website, no defense attorney is listed as on staff in the legal department. A defense attorney can be appointed for someone in need but it doesn’t appear to be at the city’s expense.

    • It’s bad proposed legislation. Period. It does NOTHING to address the core issue that it proposes to–how about we actually HELP the people who live in Maplewood get the proper licensing, etc. rather than this performative nonsense? This isn’t “bold change in furtherance of equity and justice.”

      But isn’t it wonderful that we can all hold different opinions on these issues and decide on them at the ballot box?

    • Amy: You do righteous and necessary work in our society. As to your question on what I am basing my opinion about defense attorneys advocating for their clients: As an engaged, informed citizen, I have observed and read about our legal system for decades, though I also relied on conversations with attorneys about Prop J. I clearly stayed away from making legal arguments in my article, as I am not qualified in that arena. Plus, there are more than enough other shortcomings to impeach the proposition. I acknowledged in my piece that “defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes work together to settle cases expeditiously,” but I stand by my point that it would be within the realm of the defense attorney’s role to delay hearings “to allow their clients time to repair certain conditions that might make them appear favorable to judges once cases are eventually heard.” In my opinion, that strategy would be a good example of a defense attorney serving their client’s best interests, but would also not save the city time and money, as proponents of Prop J have suggested and which is what I was addressing in #6. As I said at the end of my article, I believe there are “better ways to help truly needy, cash-strapped individuals navigate the vehicle infractions cited in Prop J.” Regardless, the issue of a whether a defense attorney would save the city time and money is just one of many points I made. Ultimately, I just can’t get past the fact that this ordinance is being brought to a vote with a woeful lack of research and background work on the part of those who are advancing it.

    • “It’s in line with what Richmond Heights does”. This is absolutely NOT correct.
      I’m a RH resident and an atty who has done my time in the muni dockets.
      I’m not aware of any other muni with a scheme such as being proposed in MW.

      If any other cities are doing anything similar, one would think those proposing the changes in MW would (a) be publicly communicating that info; and (b) be presenting data to MW voters that show effectiveness in cities/municipalities that have implemented similar policy.

      I’ve not seen either, but I’m not in MW, so could have missed those points.

      In any event, think folks need to know that Richmond Heights does NOT have policy “in line” with what is proposed in MW.

      • I think I can offer you some clarity on this statement? Those in the justice department are appointed by council; that’s the piece of this legislation that will change to be in line with RH. You’re absolutely correct that RH does not employ a defense attorney for select traffic citations. That part is super unique and (to my understanding) untested. I hope that helps clarify that talking point?

  6. Of course a defense attorney defends “across the board” with no regard as to what the citizen is accused of or how they “ran afoul of the law.” That’s called the American justice system. All are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and everyone gets an attorney to defend them. I’m amazed that so many people seem to have forgotten this.

  7. Just a couple of points for added detail that I gathered from one of the Mayor’s meet-n-greet events. I had many of these same questions and expressed my concern that the proposal didn’t really address the core issue for those who are economically challenged. I wondered aloud if there was a way we could create some sort of committee that would offer free advice or maybe even financial support for those who do not have the “proper” legal pieces in place to drive a car, such as plates, license, insurance, etc. I’m not smart enough to know how this would work, but I tossed it out as an option that might be considered, instead of hiring a defense attorney.

    Here are a couple of points I gathered at the meet-n-greet…

    Point 1: Our current law firm charges some ungodly amount for retainer each month. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was something like $15,000 a month, even if they do no work for us at all. I just remember that my eyes bugged out when I heard the number. Someone who actually knows the number can chime in if they want. So the mayor and council members in attendance seemed convinced that by breaking that relationship and hiring attorneys on a per-case basis would save money. I get the original poster’s (OP) point that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of details like this presented, but at the meet-n-greet, they were quite upfront about it. I remember saying to them, “you all need to get this information out there ASAP,” but I don’t know that I’ve seen our current costs presented.

    Point 2: About non-residents getting the benefit of our attorney…the answer that I heard was basically along the lines of “well, they do business in, or possibly work in Maplewood.” I guess the point was that non-residents contribute economically to Maplewood. I wondered aloud again about the percent of non-residents that are actually contributing to our community vs. those just passing through on their daily commute on Big Bend to I-64.

    I do agree with the OP that the intent of this Prop is good. The cycle of poverty was mentioned at the meet-n-greet. I thought about what would happen to me if I didn’t have the money to get my plates, and then I got ticketed for not having plates. That would be so hard and frustrating and scary. My gut feeling is that most who don’t have plates are in that spot because of financial reasons. But the OP makes a good point in that I don’t know the percentage of those in financial hardship vs. those who are just shirking their responsibility. I think the data shows that statistically the vast majority of people without plates are those in financial hard times.

    Let’s think about what it takes:
    1. You have to have a car that passes a safety and emissions test, which means it can’t be a complete beater. You need time to get your car into a place to get these inspections. For some with unforgiving jobs (like I used to have) it can be almost impossible to get any time off for things like this.
    2. Paid personal property tax receipt. This might be an issue if you are struggling financially.
    3. Current insurance, which can also be an issue if you are struggling.
    4. The registration and processing fee…
    5. Free time to go to the license office and do all of this. Around here that likely means Deer Creek. It won’t be fast. Yes, I know you can try to do it online, but that doesn’t help with all of the other points on this list.

    So, while I’m not convinced that Prop J is the best solution, I do understand that the intent was good.

    I would like to address some of the comments that I’ve seen (not necessarily in this publication) from those opposed to this Prop. I just explained above in detail why it can be challenging for some to get all of the pieces they need to drive legally in this state. I’ve seen comments that basically go “the mayor just wants to help criminals get away with breaking the law.” You have to be a pretty cynical person to blame the poor for being poor. You must think that everyone is lazy, except you. It’s the same people who drag out the old “welfare queen” trope. Frankly it’s a disgusting argument and you need to stop it. You are perpetuating sterotypes that certain rich people love to see. When you blame the poor for all of your problems, you are just a pawn for the super wealthy.

    Let’s try to figure out a way to make it easy and affordable for everyone to drive. That should be our goal as pertains to this topic.

    • I agree with much of what you said, and I like the intent of the Prop, but I think there are a lot of alternatives that could be considered. And all this money will be spent without actually fixing the root issue – I’d rather see money go to helping people get licensed than to PAYING lawyers to reduce fines (why not just…make the fines less since the city has control over that too…)

    • “My gut feeling is that most who don’t have plates are in that spot because of financial reasons. But the OP makes a good point in that I don’t know the percentage of those in financial hardship vs. those who are just shirking their responsibility.”

      one of MANY issues and assumptions being made to push this forward. I also have an inherent issue with this being offered to ANYONE pulled over in our town and per Councilperson Homa, there is NO limit to how many times one could be defended here for the SAME violation.

      No thanks. It doesn’t solve any issues.

      • Councilperson Homa, and others in our municipal leadership do not seem to understand this. Some intent maybe good. However, poorly written in order to make someone’s agenda shine. Please, it is time for change in Maplewood!

    • Travis: I have read other statements you have made online in the past and you always do so in a reasoned, well-thought-out fashion without being intransigent. You have good analytical skills, you are willing to consider alternative points of view and you are your own person; thus, you are not susceptible to being swayed to follow the crowd. Like you, I do not think “the mayor [or the council, for that matter] just wants to help criminals get away with breaking the law,” though I do believe they are misguided on this issue. As I made eminently clear in my piece, the proposed ordinance is fraught with problems and is laden with unknowns. Plus, the ill-preparedness and lack of research on the part of those who put forth the proposition is troubling. I will close by imploring you to PLEASE RUN FOR CITY COUNCIL!

  8. Rob, this is a very well thought out response and is articulated very well. There is NO reason to approve this poorly thought out Proposition just to give the mayor additional unwarranted power to appoint more colleges and friends into an unnecessary position.

  9. I’d rather see money going to help underprivileged individuals get compliant than go to two lawyers paid to argue with each other by the same city.

    This may be an opinion piece, but is shows a lot more logic and pragmatism than what has been displayed by our council in pushing this through.

  10. To me, the most interesting thing about Prop J is that it’s for a public defender for “non-moving” violations. These rarely involve anything more than a fine, unless there’s an additional problem such as colliding with another vehicle (at which point, it can conceivably result in a felony charge.) But a felony charge can result in jail time; lack of insurance does not.
    Since that’s typically the case, why is the City of Maplewood considering this?
    If you read further, it gives the Mayor the power to hire and fire people in the Law Department. Those two powers historically have resulted in patronage positions, among other problems.
    I think this is a very poor way to address what apparently is a rather small problem. Most citizens seem to pay their insurance, keep their licenses up to date, etc.
    In my opinion, this is a very poor use of taxpayer money, so Prop J needs to be rejected until a true solution can be found.

    • EXACTLY. Patronage. Why is the mayor so power-hungry that she has to consolidate this new hire under her purview and not the council’s? Perhaps like the way she appointed her friend Brandy Herndon-Miller to a judgeship, and the same way she slid her friend Amber Withycombe into city manager, Knapper is working to outfit yet another position with a crony. Prop J is a massive red flag on top of a mountain of smaller red flags.

      • My understanding is that that it would be an appointment by the mayor, with majority council approval. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is how things are done currently, except it’s the city mayor who makes the appointment, not the mayor, with council majority approval. The city manager reports to the council, but is a full time city staff member. They could be there for decades, for better or worse, as we’ve seen. I’ve lived here for almost 30 years, and I can say that I would rather vote out a mayor after their 3 year term if I’m not in support of their appointments, rather than wait 36 years for a new city manager to come in.

        • As outlined in Maplewood’s charter, this muni is a council-manager, more colloquially known as a City Manager form of government. City managers are trained professionals, typically with a Masters in Public Administration or similar. At the level Maplewood is at (with what… 70-80+ employees and its own dedicated police and fire depts), you’d ideally hire a city manager with at least a decade of experience and having already managed smaller munis (or equivalent experience with a larger city) with fewer employees (maybe at least 30-40). And this is a person who is professionally trained to stay as unbiased as possible and work solely for the good of the city and its budget, despite individual agendas any one person on council may have.

          And Prop J changes our charter – our founding document – which again, plainly states that we are a city manager form of government. Changing this document shouldn’t be taken lightly and shouldn’t be done with a poorly written, under-researched piece of legislation that hasn’t publicized a cost analysis (if one was even done) and centralizes power to any one person on our council. Why couldn’t it have been written that the appointments come from the council at large and not just from the mayor? That is actually more in line with other munis similar to our size and governing structure.

          As a city manager form of government, our council is supposed to be a part time job. There aren’t professional, knowledge-based, or skill requirements, aside from getting signatures or filing as a write in candidate, required to get on the ballot. As we’ve seen lately, many of our current councilpersons were elected in uncontested races. And our budget is a tight budget. Right now we pay one single professional to run the city and 7 very part time electeds to offer legislation and act as a checks and balance to that single professional. The city manager isn’t a lifetime hire. If you aren’t happy with the city manager, you should look at your councilpersons. One of their biggest responsibilities is hiring and firing the city manager. That said, because people can remain in the position a long time (so long as each council deems they are doing a good job), that process should be taken seriously, consider many factors, and include the community in that process in every way possible. The secretive, closed door process this council used for the current manager was woefully disappointing and harmful to the community. How do you not even post the job on the city website? Save the one councilperson who actually listened to citizens and voted no, this entire council is complicit in not doing their due diligence to the city in that process. That said, our city council told us to trust them and that Amber was the right choice. So now why do they want to shift a major piece of her job away from her?

          With the current practices regarding legal representation for the city, you have the city manager (an unbiased city-focused party) research and bring to council a law firm who specializes in muni law and the entire council should do their own research and vote yes or no based on what they find. A good councilperson isn’t there to rubber stamp the city manager but to actively affirm their recommendations. And you’d need 7 people to affirm the choice made here. When you shift to having the mayor make these legal staff choices, now you have only six people affirming the choices and someone who may have run uncontested making the appointments. And as we’ve seen in this race, if you don’t agree with the mayor, you are labelled a racist even if you have valid concerns about what is happening at city hall and the stewardship of our taxpayer dollars. We all need to be able to question the things our elected officials are doing. So say the mayor is re-elected, and prop J passes, will our councilpersons be labelled as racist if they vote no on her appointments? Seems a good possibility.

          I hope people very seriously and fully consider all of these factors when making their choices next Tuesday. The future of Maplewood depends on it.

  11. I am embarrassed for Councilperson Homa.

    He is clearly a very intelligent person, and his replies and inability to answer fundamental questions about a proposal that clearly wasn’t ready to put forth…sigh. Though the architect of this slapped together mess is of course Mayor Knapper.

    We deserve better. Groupthink has no place in local government. Neither does unwavering loyalty to ONE leader.

  12. For Doug Miner, can this be labelled “opinion” in the title? The corresponding graphic when it appears on the 40 South homepage says Opinion in huge letters. But when a link from elsewhere goes straight to this page (which is how I got here), it’s not identified as such. Thanks.

  13. Why did any of our council or mayor bother to get into local government if they weren’t prepared to even do basic due diligence like what is suggested here? This kind of sloppy “work” from our council just gives progressives a very bad look and does real damage to the cause. To anyone on the council who has supported this so far, please ask yourself if there are other ways to serve maplewood.

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