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Government, Politics & Issues

McKee case inches toward settlement as plaintiffs' lawyers bicker

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2010 - Eminent domain -- one of the main issues in the lawsuit against Paul McKee's proposed $8.1 billion redevelopment project in north St. Louis -- is the key in talks to settle the case, lawyers said Thursday.

After Circuit Judge Robert Dierker Jr. accepted filings from all parties in the case, with a ruling due by Oct. 27 on the city's request for a new trial, McKee's attorney Paul Puricelli said that "very serious discussions" toward settling the dispute are continuing. But at the same time, lawyers for the plaintiffs are bickering about whether the talks are properly representing everyone involved.

"We're trying to get rid of eminent domain," Puricelli told reporters outside Dierker's courtroom. He said that McKee would be willing to include stronger safeguards against the use of eminent domain in writing and that the developer's attorneys have laid out plans for greater community involvement in the project.

In July, Dierker ruled that McKee's proposed redevelopment and the tax-increment financing plan approved by the city to help pay for it suffered from a "fatal flaw" that prohibits it from moving forward.

Basically, Dierker ruled that the Board of Aldermen did not conform to the state's TIF law when it approved $198.6 million in tax breaks for the first two phases of the project.

Reacting to the ruling, McKee's lawyers have said Dierker's reading of the statute under which the TIF and the development plan was approved by the city was unduly narrow. They have said that in a new trial or a rehearing, they would introduce evidence that shows the city acted properly and the project should proceed.

Plaintiffs in the case, who include property owners in the affected area, have argued that despite McKee's insistence that he would not use eminent domain to take churches or owner-occupied property, his assurances are not strong enough.

The development agreement says that eminent domain would not be used, but it leaves open the possibility that aldermanic action could allow it in specific cases if new legislation is passed.

Puricelli said that talks to settle the case have centered on that issue. He said that if the plaintiffs can be assured that the safeguards against eminent domain are strong enough, Dierker may be persuaded that the city acted properly and the project may proceed. "We'd have to get some cooperation from the judge," Puricelli said.

D.B. Amon, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs, said that while McKee may be willing to make the assurances against eminent domain stronger, those changes would not necessarily apply to any other developers brought into the project.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the various plaintiffs are fighting with each other over the settlement talks. Documents in the matter were released to reporters following a meeting by attorneys in Dierker's chambers.

Eric Vickers, who represents plaintiffs Cheryl Nelson and Elke McIntosh, asked that Amon, plaintiff for Isaiah Hair, be disqualified because of what he considers to be unauthorized and improper meetings with McKee, without an attorney present.

Hair said in an affidavit that when Nelson invited him to attend a meeting with her earlier this month, he did not realize that McKee would be there. "Paul McKee just showed up," Hair said in an e-mail to Amon on Oct. 9. "Cheryl never told me Paul McKee was going to be there."

In another e-mail the same day, Hair wrote to Amon:

"Cheryl and I had a general discussion regarding what we would like to see as residents for our community. However, I did not agree to any settlement or closure. I also did not agree to become a part of any partnership or community leadership role nor attend monthly meetings."

In an affidavit submitted to the court, Hair said:

"On Oct. 2, 2010 Cheryl Nelson came to my home to ask me to attend a settlement meeting. I called my attorney, D.B. Amon to determine if he was aware of the meeting. Cheryl had given me the impression he was aware. Amon denied all knowledge of a settlement meeting; I hung up. Cheryl asked and I allowed her to use my phone to send text messages to my attorney D.B. Amon. At that time she did have her own cell phone and immediately after sending text messages to Amon began using her phone. I did not know what messages she was texting to Amon."

An earlier e-mail, from Vickers to Amon on Aug. 3, said:

"In follow-up to the meeting last night, this is to emphatically reiterate that our legal team has rejected at this time the settlement overture of Paul McKee's attorney, and therefore, you have absolutely no authority to engage in any settlement discussions on behalf of or concerning either of our clients, Ms. Cheryl Nelson and Mrs. Elke McIntosh.

"Moreover, as far as I am concerned, you also have neither the authority nor the stature to engage in any settlement discussions on behalf of the community."

After the meeting in Dierker's chambers, Amon told plaintiffs in the case that he did not think much of the settlement in play so far.

"Had I been the Kingfish of the Amos and Andy show," he said, "I might have thought that settlement was something worth looking at."

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