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Ferguson commission looks to shift focus away from indictment

Leaders of a new panel will address underlying issues raised by the unrest in Ferguson, and members say they'll make sure the effort has a genuine impact.
Minister Starsky Wilson (L) and businessman Richard McClure listen as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, speaks to the media after announcing them as the co-chairs of a 16-member Ferguson Commission on Nov. 18, 2014 in St. Louis, Mo. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)
Minister Starsky Wilson (L) and businessman Richard McClure listen as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, speaks to the media after announcing them as the co-chairs of a 16-member Ferguson Commission on Nov. 18, 2014 in St. Louis, Mo.

 FERGUSON, Missouri — With the region waiting nervously to hear whether the Ferguson police officer who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown will face charges, the leaders of a new high-level panel are looking to shift the focus to the underlying issues highlighted by the unrest over Brown's death.

"There’s no decision that makes 100% of the people happy," Rev. Starsky Wilson, a co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, told msnbc in an interview. "And so what's best right now is to be thoughtful about how we can get to know one another, and move beyond whatever the announcement is."

Rich McClure, a veteran of St. Louis civic life and Starsky's co-chair, laid out some of the issues the panel will aim to tackle: Racial and ethnic disparities, a lack of economic and educational opportunities, and police-community relations. 

Gov. Jay Nixon announced the commission’s members at an event Tuesday, and a state agency approved a $100,000 grant so it can start work immediately.

“Their most important work will not be what is written on sheets of paper or on a website,” Nixon said. “Their most important work will be the changes we see in our institutions and our work places, in our communities and in our interactions with one another. Change of this magnitude is hard; but maintaining the status quo is simply not acceptable.”

The commission is charged with releasing a report by no later than September 15, 2015, on the underlying issues raised by the unrest in Ferguson.

The16-person group includes representatives from the protest movement, as well as a local businessman, a law enforcement official, non-profit leaders, and academics. It has nine black members and seven white members. Ten are men, and six are women. (See below for the full list.)

McClure, a former chief of staff to one-time Missouri Governor John Ashcroft, insisted that unlike some other commissions, this one would have teeth. Though the commission's recommendations aren't binding, he said it would push to implement them through the legislative process and through executive actions.

RELATED: Why Gov. Jay Nixon's Ferguson commission just might work

"And then after the commission is done, we are committed to set up a process for monitoring, for implementation, for further action, to ensure that citizens know: Here is what happened as a result of this report. And to keep the pressure on for real change," McClure added.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said Tuesday that he voted against funding for the panel because its report would only "gather dust on a shelf."

Wilson, the well-connected president of a St. Louis grant-making organization focused on child well-being, said that by its actions, the commission aimed to offer an example of the kind of civic engagement that it wants to encourage. 

"This kind of engaged group of people, who are diverse, taking responsibility for stewarding a process by which the entire region has input into its future, is a model for the democratic project of inclusive democracy," he said. "This is really what America is about."

"Every time somebody's been [congratulating me] for being on the commission, I've been saying, congratulate us for when we get something done for you."'

An announcement on whether Officer Darren Wilson has been indicted for Brown’s killing is expected any day. A decision not to indict could set off a new spasm of anger, over three months after protests and isolated violence roiled this St. Louis suburb in the wake of Brown's death.

Starsky Wilson said commissioners' ties to the community could allow it to help act as a force for calm in the wake of a decision. 

"One of the great things about this commission is that it's filled with active citizens, who are engaged in the dialogue and the preparation already," he said.

Wilson and McClure could have a tough time keeping everyone on the same page. One member of the panel, Rasheen Aldridge, 20, is a local activist who last month led an occupation of St. Louis City Hall. Another, Kevin Ahlbrand, is the president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, and complained in August that “nobody is standing up for Darren Wilson.”

Police and witnesses say Brown and Wilson engaged in a physical struggle through the window of the officer’s SUV shortly before the teen’s death on Aug. 9. Law enforcement officials say Brown attempted to take Wilson’s gun when the police officer fired the first shot. A half-dozen eyewitnesses have said they saw Brown flee the vehicle as Wilson open fire with the fatal shots as the teen stopped, turned and raised his arms in surrender. But a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told NBC News’ Pete Williams Wilson had said he feared for his safety when the teen turned and charged back toward him after running from the vehicle.

The conflicting accounts have contributed to the tension between protesters and law enforcement in the city.

"Good decisions come when there’s full and vigorous debate," said McClure. "So we trust and hope that will happen, and that in the crucible of that debate and that respectful conversation, you’ll see where there’s common ground."

RELATED: Ahead of decision, Ferguson businesses prepare for the worst

Gabriel Gore, one of the commission’s members, and a lawyer at the Dowd Bennett law firm in St. Louis, said there's always a risk that the panel's recommendations will be ignored.

“But when I look at the group that the governor has put together, it’s representative of the community, and I also think it’s a group that can then go out into the community long after the commission has ended its work and work to make these things happen,” Gore said.

And Brittany Packnett, another commissioner who's an executive at Teach for America St. Louis and who has been active in the protest movement, said the only way to measure the panel is on what it ultimately achieves for ordinary people.

"Every time somebody's been tweeting at me and saying congratulations for being on the commission, I've been saying, congratulate us for when we get something done for you," Packnett told msnbc. "Because you are who we are accountable to."

But Joshua Williams, 18, who was protesting Wednesday in the cold outside the Ferguson Police Department, said he didn’t have much faith that the commission was going to lead to positive changes.

“I think they just did it shut us up for a little while,” said Williams.

The panel's members are:

  • Rev. Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation;
  • Rich McClure, former president and COO of Unigroup;
  • Reverend Traci Blackmon, Pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ;
  • Dan Isom II, Director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety;
  • Scott Negwer, President of Negwer Materials in Ferguson;
  • Bethany Johnson-Javois, CEO of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network;
  • Gabriel E. Gore, attorney and partner at the law firm of Dowd Bennett LLC; 
  • Brittany Packnett, Executive Director of Teach For America;
  • Rose Windmiller, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Government & Community Relations at Washington University.
  • Rasheen Aldridge, Jr., community organizer and Director of Young Activists United;
  • Grayling Tobias, Superintendent of the Hazelwood School District;
  • Becky James-Hatter, President and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri;
  • Felicia Pulliam, Director of Development for FOCUS St. Louis and Ferguson resident;
  • Kevin Ahlbrand, Detective Sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and President of the Missouri State Fraternal Order of Police;
  • Patrick Sly, Executive Vice-President, Emerson;
  • T.R. Carr, Jr., Professor of Public Administration at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville;