Mayor Francis Slay took some heat when he appointed Charles Bryson director of the Department of Public Safety in 2007. Critics claimed that Bryson was unqualified for the job: he had little to no previous experience in public safety, as his career had focused on neighborhood development and community youth programs. Critics called it a purely political appointment.
Over time the outrage dulled, as tends to happen. But the recent string of jail escapes has re-illuminated the controversial selection and re-ignited the criticism.
Initially, low-level management took the fall for the three breakouts this year (the most recent one occurring last Friday). Corrections Commissioner Gene Stubblefield was suspended and a guard was placed on forced leave as the city attempted to isolate the damage over the last few days. But as the week progressed-- from Wednesday's Public Safety committee meeting where aldermen demanded accountability to new evidence emerging last night that Bryson was warned of the jail's vulnerability-- the blame moved up the ladder, first to Bryson, who oversees the city's Division of Corrections, and then eventually to the man who put him in charge.
"My first question is why would Mayor Slay put Bryson in place, given the importance of the job and the fact that he doesn't have the qualifications to do it?" said Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed after today's general assembly meeting. "It was irresponsible for him to put someone there who didn't have the qualifications for such an important job. It risks the lives of everyone in this city."
KMOV reported last night that Stubblefield, the man Bryson suspended, had sent memos directly to Bryson "trying to alert his superiors to problems with running the jails and leadership in the Department of Public Safety as far back as 2008."
The memos warned that supervisor positions that had been eliminated because of budget cuts were "critical for operations." According to KMOV, "One document in particular from April of 2011 states the jails can become a dangerous place without appropriate managerial staffing." But apparently nothing was done to address these concerns.
To Slay's critics, these revelations only affirm that Bryson was the wrong man for the job. Of course, the whole situation is made even worse for Slay since this potentially regretful appointment is linked to criminals escaping from jail-- a scandal oozing political blowback, seemingly tailor-made for negative campaign ads.
"The mayor needs to show that he takes public safety in this town seriously," said Alderman Antonio French. "Let's see if the mayor is as loyal to his public safety director as his public safety director has been to him."
French accused Slay of giving Bryson the position for "political reasons." He and Reed each asserted that the mayor should replace Bryson with someone who has more experience in public safety. To be sure, both could be considered political opponents of Slay. Many believe that Reed will run against Slay in 2013. And there's been tension between French and the mayor for a while now, a beef that publicly crescendoed in July when Slay vetoed French's bill to put speed bumps in O'Fallon Park.
We're currently awaiting comment from Slay. We'll update the post as soon as we hear from him.
This isn't the first time Slay and Bryson have been in the trenches together. When the city's first African American fire chief Sherman George was demoted under Bryson's watch, protesters marched outside Slay's and Bryson's respective homes.Seven city departments are under the public safety director's authority: the Division of Corrections, the Fire Department, the Excise Division, the Neighborhood Stabilization Office, the Excise Division, the Building Division and the City Emergency management agency. If/when the city regains local control, the police department would be added to that list.
As for today's general assembly meeting, 7th Ward Alderwoman Phyllis Young introduced a bill that would give Ralcorp Holdings, the food product company that plans to expand its offices downtown, up to $20 million in tax credits. The bill was sent to the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning committee. Slay announced on his blog yesterday that the company has agreed to stay in the city for at least another decade and that "to finalize the agreement, Ralcorp has asked the Board of Aldermen for bond financing and some tax breaks on new equipment." The company has over 9,000 employees.
Given the fervent budget-centered debate in July over a bill that would allow Grace Hill, the non-profit health care organization, to purchase two buildings from the city at a discounted price, it would be surprising if this proposal doesn't raise the ears of the board's fiscal hawks.