Quit Looking Over My Shoulder

Local honchos stop the press at a stadium-financing confab; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

In a meeting that turned into one of the first skirmishes of what looks to be a contentious, protracted campaign, a tableful of elected officials gathered last week for a "stadium summit" in St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon's office. "Campaign" could refer to the Cardinals' ongoing effort to justify public money for their for-profit company or to the Harmon-Francis Slay mayoral contest; take your pick.

Yes, in the mayoral campaign, in addition to Aldermanic President Slay, Bill Haas has announced his candidacy. He's also running for the 1st Congressional District. (With Haas in mind, couldn't there be a campaign-limit law to go along with term limits? One try for office every so many years?) And yes, yes, there is ongoing talk that would-be comeback mayors Vince Schoemehl and Freeman Bosley Jr. are warming up, waiting to enter the race. Citizens starved for entertainment can only hope that's true. But when it comes down to it, for now, it's Slay vs. Harmon, winner to be decided in the March primary.

So everything Slay and Harmon do now has added significance, or at least the appearance of it. Harmon called a meeting to discuss the new stadium "proposal"; attendees included St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, East St. Louis Mayor Debra Powell and the county execs of St. Clair, Franklin and Jefferson counties. St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth sent an aide. Slay thought the meeting would be open to the media. It wasn't.

Harmon press spokesman Chuck Miller says there was never any intention of opening the meeting to the press: "The mayor felt it wouldn't encourage a frank, open and honest discussion about the issues."

Does that mean that public officials, in the presence of the press, aren't frank, open and honest?

"Well, no," Miller replies. "Frank, open and honest, and probably the word I left out was full discussion. The mayor wanted to create a relaxed, comfortable environment for the other elected officials to participate in this frank, open, honest and full discussion of the issues around the new stadium for the baseball Cardinals. If the media were looking over their shoulders, I don't think people would be comfortable or at ease to discuss fully the proposal for a new stadium."

That the press wouldn't be in the room was a "selling point" to the other elected officials, Miller says. The main purpose of the meeting was to hear firsthand what officials thought about a new stadium and not rely on secondhand reports or media interpretations. Miller insists that legal advisors concluded the meeting was not covered by the state's open-meeting law.

"It shouldn't matter whether it's covered by the Sunshine Law or it's not covered -- I think we ought to let the press in," says Slay. "It sends a bad message. It looks like public officials are cutting deals behind closed doors and shutting the public out."

So Slay got in the meeting and asked that it be opened to the press. Harmon said no. Slay asked for a vote of those present. Harmon said no, it's his meeting and there will be no vote. Slay says that at that point, he said that if this was the way it would be, he would leave. No one else chimed in with their views.

"Let's put it this way: It was almost as if they didn't want to get in the middle of a fight between me and the mayor," Slay says. "There was no comment from anyone else at the meeting. But I was willing to take it to a vote. We're all elected officials; let's vote on it."

Slay was baffled that these public officials somehow were nervous about the Fourth Estate's being in the same room, particularly when public funds likely will be involved if a stadium is built. "We're all used to having the press in our meetings looking over our shoulders. I didn't see any reason why this should be a closed meeting. There was nothing about it that caused me to be concerned about the press being involved or being there.

"Whatever is discussed here, the press is standing right outside the door here anyway and they're going to ask about what went on, who said what and all that," Slay adds. "We're going to tell them anyway. What's the difference if they're there?"

But apparently every public official isn't thrilled with the press. "It was obvious after Slay left (that) the other members did not want the media there," says Miller. "No one else in the room wanted the media there. In fact, most of the people wanted to get into the meeting without going through the media, but that couldn't be helped."

Again, the campaign by the Cardinals for a new stadium coincides with the mayoral campaign, where any disagreement between Harmon and Slay suggests hidden motives.

"There was more to gain by Francis' sitting at the table than walking out," says Miller. "He not only walked out, he didn't leave a staff person there to find out what was going on. Usually if you're going to pull a stunt like that, you at least leave somebody behind to tell you what happened."

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