By Ray Downs
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By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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Creve Coeur's the kind of town where good manners and appearances matter. Residents diligently maintain their elegant ranch homes; lawns are professionally landscaped. In this wealthy west St. Louis County community, cops and teens don't shoot at each other, businesses don't need iron bars over their windows and civilized behavior seems to be the norm.
But there's one place where Creve Coeur might be mistaken for a Berkeley, Overland or any of the county's rowdier, less affluent burgs.
For more than a year, Creve Coeur's City Hall has been the site of a pitched battle between Mayor Annette Mandel and a small group of outspoken critics.
This isn't a run-of-the-mill municipal pissing match. The way this mayor's dealing with dissent is stirring up images of mining and timber companies bullying tree-huggers:
To get critics to shut up, Annette Mandel -- the top elected official in Creve Coeur -- sued them.
In May, Mandel and an ally, Councilwoman Judy Pass, filed libel and defamation lawsuits against six city residents, including a City Council member.
The brain behind the two lawsuits: Alan Mandel, the mayor's husband and a high-rolling personal-injury attorney.
The result of months of quibbling over seemingly insignificant issues, the Creve Coeur lawsuits mirror a strategy used by businesses in recent years to muzzle critics.
But when public servants act like cattle ranchers going after Oprah Winfrey, folks take notice. In local government and political circles, the Creve Coeur lawsuits are seen as potentially precedent-setting.
Among free-speech advocates, they're seen as chilling.
For the Mandels, the fight's personal -- and woe to anyone who stands in their way.
· They've sought copies of news reporters' e-mails and correspondence.
· They've tried to subpoena one defendant's entire private-sector personnel file -- a maneuver that brought an allegation of professional misconduct against Alan Mandel.
· They've tried to gather incriminating evidence on individuals who haven't been named defendants. Shortly after the lawsuits were filed, says Creve Coeur Councilwoman Pati Trout, Alan Mandel showed up at a council meeting and kept his video camera trained on her. The Mandels see Trout as a source of discord in city government; Trout calls the episode an effort to intimidate her.
· When the American Civil Liberties Union learned of the lawsuits, the organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief describing the cases as efforts to stifle free speech and dissent. Alan Mandel responded by deriding the ACLU and asking a judge to fine and punish the organization.
Mandel's not the kind of lawyer who retreats -- especially not when he's battling people he describes as "miscreants," "loose cannons," "hateful" and "halfwits."
But the more the Mandels and Pass have pressed, the more defiant they've made their critics.
Bob O'Connor, a defendant, describes the Mandel approach: "'To hell with the rules, to hell with what the requirements are -- let's just do it this way.' The rules apply to everybody but them."
Annette Mandel, once a rising star in the local Democratic Party, is emerging as the poster child for proposed state legislation to bar lawsuits against citizens who commit the crime of criticizing the government.
But that's still a long way off.
For now, free speech in Creve Coeur comes with a complimentary court date.
Before the lawsuits, there was a question.
Creve Coeur Councilwoman Laura Bryant wanted to know why one member of an important planning committee was deemed to have a conflict of interest but another wasn't. The issue was sensitive: The committee, formed in early 2000, was charged with putting together a major land-use plan; members of the committee had a say in the city's future development.
One of Mayor Mandel's appointees to the committee was Judy Pass, whose husband, Jeff, was a lawyer and partner in the Stolar Partnership, a law firm that was a legal consultant to the committee.
In October 2001, Bryant sent an e-mail to two city officials asking why Pass could serve on the committee when the city attorney had raised conflict-of-interest questions about Gene Rovak, the city's planning-and-zoning commissioner. Rovak is employed by Horner & Shifrin, an engineering firm that was also advising the committee.
Creve Coeur's ethics code bars elected and appointed officials from having an "interest" in any contract with the city. One of the code's definitions of a contract interest is the "receipt by an individual or his spouse of a salary [...] of six thousand dollars or more per year from any [...] partnership."
Because Pass' husband was paid more than $6,000 by the Stolar Partnership and the law firm was paid for advising the committee, Bryant and another committee member, Jeanne Rhoades, worried that Pass might be violating the code and that the ethics rules weren't being consistently applied.
Bryant and Rhoades weren't the only ones raising the issue.
In December 2001, Creve Coeur resident Terry Johnston presented the City Council with a petition asking the city's ethics commission to review "multiple inconsistent conflict-of-interest decisions." In March of this year, Rhoades read a letter at a City Council meeting demanding a written response to the petition Johnston had given the council. Mayor Mandel responded by asking Rhoades whether she was aware "that recently there was a case in Maryland Heights where an individual was held liable for slanderous and libel actions against city officials."