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Proposed charter amendment aimed at Peabody may be headed to court

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 1, 2013: A legal fight appears imminent now that MORE, a regional activist group that’s that has been protesting Peabody Energy’s activities for months, has turned in its initiative petitions for a proposed St. Louis charter amendment directed at Peabody or any other firm involved in "unsustainable energy production."

Right after the petitions were submitted Wednesday, the St. Louis Election Board was hit with a Sunshine Law request from the law firm of Stinson Morrison and Hecker for copies of the 4,321 pages of signatures contained on the petitions.

The firm also asked for documentation of the procedures used by the Election Board to verify the signatures and a list of previous charter amendment proposals.

One of the firm’s lawyers, Jane Dueker, said in an interview, “We’re representing individuals and companies who are opposed to the destruction of the economic environment of the city of St. Louis.” 

She declined to identify the clients but indicated that legal action was expected.

MORE, which stands for Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, says it turned in more than 36,000 signatures from registered city voters.  The group needs certified signatures from at least 22,000 to get their proposal on the ballot early next year.

The proposed charter amendment would bar any city aid or tax breaks to any firm that deals in “unsustainable energy production.’’

The proposal doesn’t mention a particular firm, but MORE representatives have said their chief target is Peabody Energy – the world’s largest coal company, which is headquartered downtown.

The amendment also would appear to affect any company dealing in fossil fuels and, according to its wording, “anyone that does $1 million of business with them per year."

Other provisions also would mandate that the city set up “a sustainable energy plan that includes public money for renewable energy and sustainability projects and opens up city-held land for related projects.”

Mayor Francis Slay’s staff has criticized the proposed amendment, saying it would destroy businesses and jobs in the city.

Gary Stoff, the Election Board’s Republican elections director, said its staff has three days to provide an initial response to the law firm. The board has more time to collect and turn over the information sought.

But in the case of the petitions, the board has only 10 days to review, verify or reject the signatures.

Stoff said that the city charter also will first give the Board of Aldermen 60 days to decide whether it wants to support the proposal – which then would preclude a citywide vote. The board’s rejection would automatically put the proposal on the ballot, if other charter-amendment requirements are met.

Dueker reaffirmed her earlier assertion that the initiative petition proposal is likely illegal, and that the Election Board should reject the signatures outright. “This thing has serious legal problems,” she said.

MORE disagrees. Wednesday night, the group issued a statement from Arif Haque, a lawyer who helped draft the initiative.

Haque contended that the amendment would not affect large energy purchasers, such as major businesses, that do business with Peabody or other affected companies.

"This ballot initiative was specifically crafted in anticipation of the question of whether it would apply to businesses that buy large quantities of electricity and gasoline, but do not otherwise do business with unsustainable energy producers,” Haque said.

“The initiative would not target such businesses. This initiative is about reallocating resources to create a new, local, green economy in St. Louis -- not punishing people for buying power.”

He added, “The definition of ‘Public Financial Incentives’ (in the proposal) came from research on how the city defined various incentive programs on their website and in the city charter. The ballot initiative deals with incentives, which are perquisites not offered to all members of the public.”

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