St. Louis Charter Commission's Work Marred by Infighting

Jazzmine Nolan-Echols called out a former alderwoman for a fatal car crash, but members weren't having it

Apr 30, 2024 at 11:55 am
Jazzmine Nolan-Echols in a screen grab from Charter Commission's April 1 meeting.
Jazzmine Nolan-Echols in a screen grab from Charter Commission's April 1 meeting. City of St. Louis YouTube channel

Five members of the St. Louis Charter Commission are calling on their chairperson to apologize for recent comments she made concerning a City Hall staffer’s involvement in a fatal car accident more than a decade ago.

It is just the latest in a series of contretemps stifling the rare opportunity this body has to modernize city government.

The letter was sent to Jazzmine Nolan-Echols, chair of the city’s Charter Commission, an entity established last year by voters to update the city’s century-old charter, the document that outlines how governance in the city gets done.

At the end of a three-hour meeting of the commission on April 15, Nolan-Echols directly confronted Christine Ingrassia, director of operations for the Board of Aldermen and a non-voting member of the Charter Commission.

Nolan-Echols said she wanted to discuss something that had been brought to her attention, “pertaining to you, Christine Ingrassia, related to the conflict of interest and biases that you may have as part of this process, as it relates to your past cases in running and actively participating in the death of a Black girl in your neighborhood or the neighborhoods in which have not been discussed.”

A few moments prior, Ingrassia had pointed out that the city’s Director of Personnel Sonya Gray is married to Reverend Darryl Gray, who had given testimony to the commission in his capacity as a member of the jail oversight board. 

Nolan-Echols saw Ingrassia’s remarks as hypocritical.

“If we're not discussing the death of a Black person by way of your participation … I don't believe anybody's personal relationship or personal involvement with the government or lack thereof should be discussed here, either,” Nolan-Echols said.

Before Ingrassia or anyone else could reply, Commissioner Anthony Riley suggested they adjourn the meeting, which they then did.

The next day, five of the nine voting members sent Nolan-Echols an email criticizing her comments and calling on her to apologize.

“We are deeply disappointed by your actions, which we regard as unprofessional and not in line with the spirit of collaboration in which we hope to conduct our business,” said the letter signed by members Anna Crosslin, Chris Grant, Scott Intagliata, Anthony Riley and Travis Sheridan.

They went on to praise Ingrassia as someone who had dedicated herself to making the city “a better place to live and work for everyone.”

Reached for comment about the letter, Nolan-Echols told the RFT in a statement that, “Unfortunately, I will not be addressing anything other than the St. Louis City Charter with you.”

Back in March 2014, Ingrassia was the alderwoman for what was then the city’s 6th ward when she witnessed what she thought was a drug deal being conducted by a man named Bryan Green. Ingrassia called the police and began pursuing Green in her car after he took off in his. When Green blew through an intersection, struck another car and a tree, the 15-year-old in his backseat, Jada Williams, died in the crash. At the time, Williams was pregnant.

Green pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and both he and Ingrassia are currently defendants in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Williams’ father.

Ingrassia retained her seat as alderwoman, winning reelection several times, until resigning to take her current job last year.

All nine voting members of the Charter Commission were appointed by Mayor Tishaura Jones in consultation with the Board of Aldermen. 

Jones’ chief of staff Jared Boyd was critical of the chairperson’s comments.

“Healthy disagreements over policy are understandable and expected as the commission works together to shape a vision for charter reform, but personal attacks against city staff are completely unacceptable,” said Boyd.

There were high hopes for the commission back when voters approved its creation in April 2023.

A City Hall press release at the time referenced the antiquated language of the city charter, drafted in 1914. Relics from that era include provisions that the city only print updates in English and German. The document also grants municipal leaders the right to tax horse-shoers and merry-go-rounds.

It also set up what is apparently a very complex City Hall organizational chart that the Charter Commission now has the opportunity to help streamline.

At a December meeting of the commission, member Anna Crosslin said that a common theme she was hearing as part of her fact-finding was, “Too many people have too many bosses.”

She specifically cited the city’s Budget Director Paul Payne, who had indicated to her he has to answer directly to three separate people.

The commission has bandied about big ideas to streamline this, such as eliminating the city comptroller position and moving many of that office’s duties into the mayor’s office. That would remove a check on the mayor’s power, as right now she needs to win support of either the president of the Board of Aldermen or the comptroller in order to spend any of the city’s money.

The commission has also proposed creating an elected public advocate, who would have the power to audit city departments and county offices as well as assume responsibility for the city’s notoriously slow Sunshine process, which is currently under the purview of the City Counselor’s Office.

Other ideas have included holding city elections simultaneously to the state and federal schedule as well as renaming the Board of Aldermen “the City Council.”

According to the city’s website, the commission will need to have those proposals finalized by mid-August in order for them to appear on the November ballot, where voters will give them a thumbs up or down. But prior to that, the commission has until mid-June to present potential changes to the public for comment.

The clock is ticking.

One person involved with the commission’s process who asked to have their name withheld said that interpersonal dust ups like the one that occurred at this month's meeting have made it harder to have “meaningful” conversation on the more serious proposals.

This person adds they’re still confident they can meet the next big deadline in mid-June, but said, “It’s going to be a big lift. And the things that have happened the last few weeks don’t help.”

The group has had numerous points of contention in recent months, with most of the conflicts being relatively minor, though collectively these tiffs risk eating up the commission's bandwidth.

In March, commission members pushed back on Nolan-Echols' proposal that the group employ political consulting firm Swing Strategies. Commissioner Intagliata questioned the wisdom of retaining their services given that they are, in his words, “a CA (California)-based, Republican lobbying firm.”

Around that same time, according to emails exchanged among commission members, there was blowback from several members over a proposed graphic emailed to the group by Nolan-Echols intended to advertise commission meetings to the public; group members Briana Bobo and Reginald Garth felt that Nolan-Echols' name dominated the flier.

A few months before that, a December meeting was marked by a testy exchange between Nolan-Echols and commission member David Dwight IV.

Dwight, an activist who served on the Ferguson Commission, expressed concern that the commission had not built the infrastructure to adequately hear from residents. He also said that he found some of the emails that Nolan-Echols had sent to commission staff to have been “inappropriate and disrespectful” and that he felt she had put herself above the other commission members.

Nolan-Echols replied that she felt like the prior month's meeting, for which she was absent, had been "very disrespectful to me and my efforts pertaining to being chair."

Commission member Reginald Garth interjected himself into the back and forth.

“While a rich debate is all good,” he said, “all nine of us have the same voice."

He went on, "With the emails and everything, keep in mind those can be Sunshined. … Every single thing we say and everything we do is under a microscope. If we are not walking in unison, that becomes a problem.”

Update: A spokesman for the office of Aldermanic President Megan Green, Yusuf Daneshyar, shared this statement:

"It is unacceptable that Chair Nolan-Echols used her position to attack the character of our friend and colleague. I know that many share our appreciation for Director Ingrassia’s contributions to the Charter Commission and our City. Chair Nolan-Echols’ continued involvement threatens to undermine the important work of the charter commission. Her thoughtless approach puts this historic opportunity for our City and its residents at risk. President Green’s office remains committed to the success of the Charter Commission and believes that a path forward exists without Chair Nolan-Echols."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred imprecisely to one of the three axes of power on the Board of E&A. It is the president of the Board of the Aldermen, not the full board, that controls one vote.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]
or follow on Twitter at @RyanWKrull.

Subscribe to Riverfront Times newsletters.

Follow us: Apple NewsGoogle News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | Or sign up for our RSS Feed