Embattled Ferguson City Manager John Shaw Once Tapped as Spokesperson

March 6, 2015 Updated: March 10, 2015

Hidden in plain sight as the administratively powerful put politically neutral leader of Ferguson, Missouri, City Manager John Shaw was once considered as an official spokesperson on post-Michael Brown shooting issues. In his position, Shaw is ostensibly the most powerful administrator in the city.

The position serves for an indefinite term and is appointed and removed by the city council.

In his job as city manager, Shaw is the chief executive and administrative officer of Ferguson, and is responsible for all city affairs. He also directs and supervises all city departments, including the Ferguson Police Department.

Despite his enormous power, Shaw has not made any leadership changes since Brown’s shooting last August. The only removal was of the city’s top court clerk and the two police officers who resigned after a sampling of racist emails were revealed in a scathing 105-page U.S. Department of Justice Report about Ferguson.

In part, the report describes Shaw’s tacit support of racially-biased tactics used by police to target black residents of Ferguson and his praise for increased funds through record numbers of court fees.

But in a series of emails between city officials and public relations experts hired to manage the fallout after the shooting of Brown that range from Sept. 11 to Oct. 23, 2014, Shaw is depicted as man of action, capable of steering clear of divisiveness. The emails were obtained by Epoch Times through a Freedom of Information request.

Shaw was eventually suggested as a potential frontrunner to speak to the media and public on behalf of the city, instead of the mayor. One email from a public relations professional seems to pit Shaw against the mayor.

“[S]omething he [Shaw] said last night in the Chamber offices in that the mayor is highly politicizing the situation due to his party affiliation,” wrote Aaron Perlut in the Oct. 23 email. Perlut is a partner with Elasticity Media, a social media and PR company.

In this Dec. 9, 2014, photo, Ferguson mayor James Knowles III listens during a meeting of the Ferguson City Council in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
In this Dec. 9, 2014, photo, Ferguson mayor James Knowles III listens during a meeting of the Ferguson City Council in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Perlut went on to say that Elliott Davis, a local television investigative reporter, was “baiting the hook” to pit Ferguson against the state of Missouri. He went on to suggest that the city manager be inserted for such interviews to avoid creating additional controversy.

“Would we better off media training John Shaw, as he’s not a politician and he’s neutral, and letting him speak to issues like these?”

The responses of the nearly dozen people included on the email chain were supportive of the idea, largely because of the lack of Shaw’s lack of political position.

“John Shaw would be a very good spokesperson, and as city manager, he could provide a buffer from the state and local political wrangling,” wrote Tom Pagano, founder of Mostrata Media Consulting Services.

Kathryn Jamboretz, vice president of marketing and communications at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership (EDC) agreed that Shaw was “trainable” but needed some “highly refined messages” to get started.

The EDC was the main body responsible for public relations management at the time, though the city manager’s office was billed directly by at least one firm that was involved, the Devin James Group.

The head of that firm, whose contract with the city ended in mid-September, also had high praises for Shaw.

In an email sent on September 12, Devin James of the Devin James Group described Shaw’s distinction as a solid leader in the face of potential violence.

“[T]hey (Ferguson) are very unstable and their leadership (except for John) is even worse so we should identify your goals for the next few steps at least to mid October,” wrote James.

The DOJ report noted that their recommendations were verbally communicated to Shaw, the mayor, and the police chief in September so Ferguson could “begin immediately to address problems.”