The Low Road

Hazelwood officials cast their lot with the developer of a controversial project in the flood-prone Missouri Bottoms. Their gamble is tearing the North County community apart.

Once the two measures have been read for the second time, the City Council can vote to approve the controversial proposals. But early in the proceedings, city attorney Kevin O'Keefe makes a motion that items 17b and 17c be tabled. The council unanimously agrees.

With the elimination of those issues from the agenda, the City Council grants time for a lengthy presentation on the artifacts to be buried in a time capsule to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the northwest St. Louis County municipality. Formed during the first wave of suburban migration in the post- World War II era, Hazelwood's prosperity has been influenced by major defense contractor McDonnell Douglas — now part of Boeing — which sits within the city limits. So the time-capsule memorabilia include not only a Barbie doll but also a model of an F-4 Phantom jet fighter.

Then the City Council moves on to weightier matters, considering a special land-use permit for a local retail establishment that specializes in body wrapping. The proprietor of the business explains that her work involves wrapping people in Ace-type bandages like a mummy. "What happens are your fat cells are squeezed together," she tells the council. The lawmakers unanimously vote to grant the permit.

Jennifer Silverberg
The Earth City headquarters of Tristar and Thomas Construction
Jennifer Silverberg
The Earth City headquarters of Tristar and Thomas Construction

The City Council has been far less cordial in its relations with opponents of the proposed TIF developments. Whereas the developers are given unlimited time to present their side of the issue, the public is routinely limited to 15 minutes of comments. At one meeting earlier this year, an outraged woman took over the podium and dared to be arrested. The City Council adjourned that meeting.

Despite objections, the council introduced ordinances in November 1998 to permit the construction of the Park 370 development with the use of TIF funding. Opponents then initiated a petition drive, which sought to change the city charter so that voters would have to approve TIF developments by a two-thirds majority before any plan could be carried out by the city. The petitions also sought to take away the city's right to invoke eminent domain in TIF projects. In a matter of weeks, the opponents had gathered almost 4,000 signatures.

But Colleen Klos, the Hazelwood city clerk, refused to certify the petitions. The clerk also rejected two petitions submitted later that sought a citywide vote to stop the TIF development. In those cases, Klos ruled that the petitions had been submitted improperly and lacked sufficient signatures.

The city clerk doesn't dispute, however, that the initial charter-amendment petition contained more than enough signatures for it to be placed on the ballot, because the count was verified by the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners.

"We only needed 10 percent, but we got almost 27 percent of the registered voters to say they want(ed) the city charter changed," says Steinbach. "We turned the petitions in on the 11th of December and the 16th. That evening, on the 16th, during a City Council meeting, we tried to discuss it. The city should have taken action on our petitions; they ignored them."

In this case, Klos ruled that unlike other tax issues, TIF is not subject to voter approval. Asked why she refused to certify the charter-amendment petition, the city clerk now says: "It was some technical thing, like it was against Missouri laws to do whatever it was that this petition wanted done."

On July 22, the Yellow Ribbon Committee filed suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court against Klos to force her to put the issue on the ballot. The committee has enlisted the legal assistance of the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Social and Economic Justice. The Detroit-based center, which is part of the National Lawyers Guild, is a progressive legal-advocacy group that opposes corporate welfare. The suit prepared by the law center alleges that Klos' decision to keep the issue off the ballot is based on "legal assumptions and conclusions of law that fall outside her unconditional ministerial duties as Hazelwood city clerk." In other words, she is unqualified to make such a legal judgment.

The suit points to other actions taken by the city that could also be construed as demonstrating poor judgment. On July 1, 1998, for instance, Hazelwood entered into a six-month contract with Unicom Group, a public-relations firm. The agreement called for Unicom to provide the city "on-going campaign planning, creative programming and program implementation for a grassroots campaign to (1) educate the members of both the public and the media about the importance of these redevelopment plans to the City; (2) create an understanding of how these plans will be beneficial to the community in the years to come; and (3) clearly show that residents of the affected areas are being treated with fairness and respect...."

The public-relations firm charged $2,000 a month for its services, plus expenses. "Unicom helped the city produce three informational pieces that were mailed to all city residents," says Greg Berg, a Unicom staff member who worked on the campaign. "We also helped them organize their council meetings, because the original council meetings, when the people were starting to talk about this last summer, were basically screaming sessions."

Mayor Farquharson promoted the development by sending out an invitation to block captains to attend a meeting to discuss the need for the TIF development. "Because some people in the community have vocally opposed the project without knowing or telling the facts, the Council and I are asking that Block Captains, along with the City's Board and Commission members come hear the facts so you can talk to your neighbors," wrote Farquharson. "This project represents the future of Hazelwood and is vital to the City. That is why the City Council and I have worked with the investor, Tristar Business Communities. After many months of studying the opportunities and working to minimize any negative impacts of the project, the Mayor and Council UNANIMOUSLY approved this exciting project."

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