Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch on Tuesday pledged to further discuss at the city council’s Jan. 22 meeting the recent controversial hiring of Neil Bruntrager as city attorney.
Welch also pleaded with residents who have protested that hiring to “try to lessen our emotions and have a conversation on our shared values.
“I have gotten some of the worst hate mail and hate voice mails that I’ve received over the last 20 years from people who are professing a concern for social justice and equity,” she said.
The council approved Bruntrager as the new city attorney effective Dec. 1. Bruntrager has represented white former police officer Jason Stockley, acquitted in the shooting death of a black man. He also defended Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting.
Some residents are asking the council to consider a ballot issue to change the city charter to eliminate a requirement that the city attorney must be a resident of Webster Groves, allowing for a more diverse pool of candidates.
Some are also asking the city to change its hiring and employee training practices to ensure racial justice and equality in all of its procedures.
At the Jan. 8 meeting Welch said Bruntrager was hired “for his expertise and skills as a city attorney.”
Bruntrager was a strong candidate who not only fit the job’s many qualifications, but also the charter’s requirement that the city attorney reside within Webster Groves, Welch said.
City officials were aware of Bruntrager’s role in defending several police officers, but said he was hired for his broad municipal-based experience, according to Welch.
“Let’s also acknowledge that Mr. Bruntrager has had to endure personal attacks in the last few weeks,” Welch said.
Opponents of the hire claim Bruntrager’s hiring could lead to a climate of fear for African Americans. They say it disregards talks with city leaders to bolster trust and strengthen social justice, racial equity and community policing. In September the city created a police community engagement board.
Clergy members are asking why Bruntrager’s credentials were not provided to the public in greater detail and why he has apparently changed his career track from criminal defense to municipal law.
Clergy are also asking for assurance from Webster Groves Police Chief Dale Curtis that there won’t be “a culture of impunity” arising regarding law enforcement applied to African Americans.
Farrell Carfield is co-chair of the Alliance for Interracial Dignity Coordinating Council. She said the alliance believes the decision to hire Bruntrager “causes grave damage to our community efforts, including the longtime efforts of many of you.
“We are disappointed that the city did not try harder to avoid this damage, including insisting on a hiring pool greater than five people,” Carfield said.
Resident Liz Faucett thanked council members David Franklin, Pam Bliss and Laura Arnold for personal statements issued after the last council meeting that she said accepted responsibility “for the pain and frustration you caused your constituents and for acknowledging the blind spots that informed your actions.”
The silence of other city leaders on the impact of Bruntrager’s hiring “has allowed mistrust, anger and hopelessness to gain further ground – repairing the trust that has been broken won’t be a quick, popular or easy process,” she said.
Welch insisted residents’ concern for social justice and equity are a good indication of the values of those who live in the community.
“I am hopeful that, over the next few weeks, we restore our friendships, calm down, recognize our commonalities, and then have a conversation about our shared values,” Welch said.