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First Day In Court For Ballot Initiative That Blocks Incentives For Energy Companies

(via Flickr/s_falkow)

A St. Louis city judge is deciding whether or not to allow citizens to vote on a charter amendment that would restrict the kind of businesses eligible for development incentives in the city.

The amendment would:

  • Block public financial incentives to "unsustainable energy providers." This refers to companies that mine or extract non-renewable energies. The charter change would also apply to companies based in St. Louis that do more than $1 million of business with "unsustainable energy providers," regardless of where the companies are headquartered. 
  • Require the city to develop both annual and five-year sustainability plans that reduce reliance on non-renewable energy. In these plans, the city must offer tax incentives to renewable energy producers; provide city land for projects like recycling centers or wind turbines; and promise to use locally-generated energy.

Three city residents and a St. Louis-based law firm sued the board of elections, mostly on technical grounds, although the suit also calls the amendment "disastrous public policy."

Judge Robert Dierker was not expected to issue a ruling today, but he is working on a tight schedule. According to testimony from Gary Stoff, the Republican director of elections for the city, ballots have to be sent to the printer by Feb. 14 to be ready for the April 8 election. It's the only item on the ballot.

Here's a summary of what happened at today's hearing:

Attorney Thomas Glick was allowed to participate in the case on behalf of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment. The group worked to collect the signatures necessary to put the measure on the April 8 ballot.

Rodney Crim, the president of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, testified about the wide variety of development incentives that the state of Missouri permits cities to use. Opponents of the charter change say Missouri's constitution requires that all businesses are treated equally when it comes to incentives.

Crim was also asked about the impact of the definition of an "unsustainable energy producer." Here is how it's defined in the measure:

"Any entity or organization, no matter how organized under state, federal, or local law, that engages primarily in the mining or extraction of any of the following: fossil fuels, coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear and radioactive materials, or other energy sources that are non-renewable. Unsustainable Energy Producer also means any entity or organization, no matter how organized under state, federal or local law, that transacts at least $1,000,000 of business per calendar year with any entity or organization described in the previous sentence."

Could this apply to pension funds, asked attorney Thomas Schwartz, who represents opponents of the petition. Yes, Crim answered. How about airlines that fly through Lambert? Professional baseball teams that have sponsorships from these companies? Construction firms? Yes, yes and yes, Crim answered.

Mary Ellen Ponder, the new director of operations for Mayor Francis Slay, told the court that the city already has a sustainability plan - and there's no specific line in the budget for yearly or five-year updates. She said the city would have to cut from elsewhere or introduce a new tax. (A now-expired grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funded the current plan).

Supporters of the amendment argued after the hearing that there's nothing in the amendment that cannot be handled by existing staff.

Gary Stoff, the Republican elections director, spoke at length about the process - outlined in the city charter - that's used to get a measure on the ballot. Schwartz, the attorney for the opponents, attempted several times to get Stoff to say that the entire measure had to be printed on the ballot because a summary statement would have been confusing. Stoff, however, responded every time that it is the board's policy to print the entire amendment.  He also said that he and his colleagues had made no judgment on the merits of the amendment.

The amendment's backers say Dierker also needs to refrain from judging the merits of the amendment. 

"Today we saw Peabody’s attorneys attempt to politic in the courts instead of making their case to city voters,"  said a statement from Take Back St. Louis, the group that is ran the ballot initiative. "We collected over 21,000 valid signatures of registered St. Louis voters who want a chance to vote on the Take Back St. Louis proposition." Any challenges to the amendment can be filed after it becomes law.

Attorneys have until Monday to submit briefs to Dierker.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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