The mayor of tony Creve Coeur and her husband found a novel way of handling political disputes -- they sue critics

He is especially puzzled by Bryant's outspokenness, noting that she attended a Bette Midler concert with his wife and Pass just a few years ago. He pulls out a copy of an e-mail from Bryant to Pass saying it was a shame that Pass had to resign from the plan-selection committee.

"Either her memory is very selective, OK, or she's crazy -- which is, by the way, a possibility," Mandel says. "Anybody who sends e-mails at four or five in the morning regularly is a problem."

He also thinks Pati Trout is part of the problem. The councilwoman was just elected in April. Since then, she's criticized the lawsuits.

Councilwoman Pati Trout is blamed by the Mandels for being an instigator, but she says they're wrong: "This has been going on for years and has nothing to do with me."
Jennifer Silverberg
Councilwoman Pati Trout is blamed by the Mandels for being an instigator, but she says they're wrong: "This has been going on for years and has nothing to do with me."

"She may end up in the lawsuit," he says. "Pati is a tool. She's a loose cannon. She's just ignorant and mean and very, very hateful of Annette and myself. I don't mind saying this -- Annette, she's educated, she's attractive, she's affluent -- she's everything that Pati's not."

When the mayor ponders the question of motive during an interview in her tastefully arranged home, one that's about to undergo a facelift with the help of an interior decorator, she also mentions Pati Trout.

"Ten years ago, the city was in exactly the same position, and the one common factor is Mrs. Trout," the mayor says, referring to the fact that Trout served on the City Council in the early 1990s.

Later, when asked about the mayor's comment, Trout says, "I'm not the common denominator. This has been going on for years and has absolutely nothing to do with me." And Trout dismisses Alan Mandel's sharp criticism as "typical [of] a man who has no self-esteem and who lives on harassment, intimidation and bullying."

Annette Mandel says the strife could also be caused be a "question of who controls what goes on in government.

"I think the bottom line of when all these issues began to get bad was when Mrs. Bryant was not named chairman of our planning-and-zoning commission. And from that point forward, she had tried to, in my opinion, she has tried to find flaws in the operation of our city government."

The mayor also mentions money as a motive. In her letter to the citizens, she refers to the land-use plan, which really started the whole fuss: "Some of these individuals wrote large portions of the plan, and some even have financial interests in the plan."

Jeanne Rhoades, one of the defendants, says that her financial interest in the plan is "not more than any other taxpayer or resident in the entire city." She began raising Sunshine Law questions when she noticed that data she had compiled from questionnaires hadn't shown up in the draft plan -- and things the committee had never discussed were in the plan. Around the same time, Bryant compiled a conflict-of-interest timeline detailing inconsistent statements. Then Terry Johnston started to ask questions. Rhoades says, "They were all stonewalled."

So Rhoades decided she needed to get involved: "Inconsistencies are not good for the city; they're not healthy for the process; they're not healthy for the comprehensive plan because they're going to make it vulnerable to litigation."

Bob O'Connor says that as president of the Chamber of Commerce, he'd heard some of the concerns raised about conflicts but didn't get involved because at the time he believed his overriding concern should be Chamber business. The business community and the Chamber had been the most vocal critics of the plan.

But once O'Connor's term with the Chamber ended, and he listened to the issues at an ethics-commission meeting, he decided to "step to the plate."

"I didn't like how the city and its committee/commission were treating people's inquiries," O'Connor says. "They weren't doing what they could do to alleviate concerns, and they appeared to be significant concerns."

Defendants Vi Smith, Terry Johnston and Keith Prokop declined to comment on the lawsuits, as did Bryant, who instead provided a voluminous written record containing many e-mails, letters and other papers that are already part of the case. The records suggest Bryant is indefatigable, and it's no surprise that her e-mails, correspondence and letters to the editor have annoyed recipients. Often she responds to answers in e-mails with a new volley of questions. But being annoying and critical isn't against the law.

Neither Pass nor the Mandels point to any financial ties with developers. And it is hard to draw a line of Republicans versus Democrats in Creve Coeur city politics. At the municipal level, elections are held without reference to political affiliation. There are no primaries, just general elections pitting independent against independent. The only thing the defendants have in common is that all except Smith live in the same ward.

When Mayor Mandel is asked whether the land-use plan would be invalidated if it was determined that Pass' service was a conflict of interest, she says, "I just don't even understand how that could happen."

She was probably just as perplexed when state Senator John Loudon (R-Ballwin) identified her by name as the reason the Missouri General Assembly needs to pass anti-SLAPP legislation.

The ACLU is trying to find bipartisan sponsorship for its own proposed legislation, which is already law in several other states. Under this plan, the defendant has the burden of proving that the speech was related to a public issue. If the defendant can do that, the case is dismissed quickly, before discovery proceeds, and allows him or her to recover attorney's fees and costs.

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