Judge rejects city law requiring vote on funding for stadium
Updated with comments from Dave Peacock, John Ammann, and Mayor Slay - A St. Louis judge has ruled that city voters do not have a right to weigh in on public spending for a proposed new football stadium north of Laclede's Landing.
"Judgment shall be, and hereby is, entered in favor of Plaintiff Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority and against Defendant City of St. Louis on Plaintiff’s Petition for Declaratory Judgment. City Ordinance 66509, Chapter 3.91 of the Revised Code of the City of St. Louis, is hereby declared INVALID."
Judge Thomas Frawley heard almost four hours of arguments June 25 over the validity of the ordinance, which voters approved in 2002 in the midst of debate over who would pay for the current Busch Stadium. The Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority sued the city to block enforcement of the law, saying the requirement injected uncertainty into the effort to keep the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis.
The arguments centered on two main issues -- adjacency and validity. Frawley ruled against the city on both.
The state law that created the RSA gave the authority the power to "plan, construct, operate and maintain" a variety of sports and entertainment facilities, provided that any new construction is "suitable for multiple purposes and designed and constructed to meet National Football League standards and shall be located adjacent to an existing convention facility" (emphasis added).
Attorneys for the city had argued that the planned new stadium was not close enough to the Edward Jones Dome to meet the definition of adjacent. Plans have the current and proposed facilities on opposite sides of Interstate 70. Frawley agreed with the RSA that a proposed ticket kiosk in a park just east of the Dome, and a walkway connecting the current complex with the proposed new stadium, met the definition of adjacent.
The RSA had challenged the validity of the law on several grounds. Frawley accepted two of the arguments -- that the law conflicted with state statutes governing development tools like tax increment financing, and that the law was too vague.
- Conflict with state law
City and county ordinances cannot permit what state law prohibits, or vice versa. The state's TIF statutes do not require voter approval, Frawley wrote, and transportation development and community improvement districts only require the vote of people living within the proposed district.
"There is no uncertainty with what was intended when the Ordinance was presented to, and approved by, the voters of the City of St. Louis," Frawley wrote. "However, the ordinance provides no guidance on when, how or by whom the issue of the City's financial assistance to development of the proposed new professional sports facility will be submitted to a public vote."
For example, Frawley noted, the ordinance defines development as "any aspect of development," making it unclear what voters would have to approve. He also pointed out that the ordinance does not set out the process the city would have to follow to submit financial assistance to the voters.
"We're certainly in agreement with the ruling of the court," said Robert Blitz, an attorney for the RSA and a member of Gov. Jay Nixon's task force studying how to keep an NFL team in the city. "This validates what the task force has been doing, and it allows us to give certainty to the NFL as to how our financing will be approved and that the RSA is the proper party to issue the bonds."
Dave Peacock, a former top executive for Anheuser-Busch and Blitz's partner on the task force, said Frawley's ruling was "a victory for a bold and promising future for the NFL in St. Louis and the continued rebirth of our downtown."
" As we continue to make excellent progress on the stadium project, this is a great time for everyone in the St. Louis region to rally on behalf of something that will make a difference in our economy, national profile and quality of life for generations to come," Peacock said. "We can make it happen."
Mary Ellen Ponder, the chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, said in a statement that the ruling was "very disappointing," but that the city would "uphold the spirit of the ordinance to the extent that we can."
There will be public meetings and other opportunities for public participation regarding financial assistance for a new stadium. We will also ask the Board of Aldermen to consider a new ordinance that requires a public vote for future projects and can survive a judicial challenge."
The statement did not indicate the city planned to appeal.
Other legal cases
Judge Frawley also rejected the request of three St. Louis residents to join in the lawsuit. Their attorney, John Ammann of the Saint Louis University legal clinic, called it a "tough day for democracy."
"We're coming up on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the Normandy School District is still unaccredited," Ammann said. "But what the leaders of the stadium authority and the city are talking about is a new stadium. You can decide any priorities you want, but let’s at least have a public discussion about what the priorities of the community are."
Ammann said his clients would appeal Frawley's ruling on the request to intervene.
"If the Mayor doesn't also appeal, he will have abandoned the voters and taxpayers," Ammann said. "The Mayor said the City Counselor would vigorously defend the ordinance. That clearly would mean appealing an adverse ruling."
Ammann is also representing two people who have sued to block the city from spending any additional money without voter approval. He did not know how Frawley's ruling would impact that case. Former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford is a party to both suits. A pending lawsuit in Cole County seeks to block the RSA and Gov. Nixon from taking any further steps to fund the stadium without an explicit appropriation from the General Assembly.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann