Hartmann: Let's Spend the Rams' Bounty the Right Way

click to enlarge Why should Charlie Dooley, pictured, be nothing more than a proxy for Sam Page? - FLICKR/usdagov
Why should Charlie Dooley, pictured, be nothing more than a proxy for Sam Page?

If ever there were a time for St. Louis to scrap politics as usual, it's now.

A ginormous bounty of $513 million awaits dispersal by the city and county. It's an unprecedented mountain of found money, extracted to the extreme displeasure of the National Football League and its constituent robber barons.

These, of course, represent the net proceeds of the $790 million settlement with the NFL over the devious departure of the former St. Louis Rams in 2016. They also represent the blurriest clear opportunity since Pierre Laclede decided to nestle alongside some indigenous folk in 1764.

Invested wisely, the settlement dollars might prove transformative for St. Louis. Conversely, they might yield nothing more than the short-term gratification of a spending spree, directed by the usual suspects of the political class.

The situation is both simple and enormously complicated. The simple part is that a group of three parties sued the NFL and the Rams: the city, the county and the entity that owns the domed stadium next to the St. Louis Convention Center. Now the three need to divide the spoils.

The stadium entity is not nearly as shrouded in mystery as many believe. In 1988, the state created the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority to construct and own a new NFL stadium. It became known — or maybe not known — as the Regional Sports Authority.

Even though the RSA is a distinct entity from the city and county, it is governed by an 11-member board that includes six people appointed by the city and governments (three apiece). The remaining five members, including the chair, are appointed by the governor.

So, the RSA is a distinct third party theoretically controlled by the other two parties. And if that's not opaque enough for you, consider this: The three parties, inexplicably, seem not to have provided for any process whatsoever for how to divvy up the loot.

That's the reality as it appears so far, anyway. Maybe some fine print will materialize to correct that glaring oversight.

Meanwhile, there's the sidebar story that St. Louis County had declined to participate in funding the lawsuit. That was an understandable decision at the time given that the lawsuit was believed to have roughly the same chance of winning as Stan Kroenke had of being chosen sexiest man in St. Louis.

But let's assume that the lawyers for the RSA, city and county will resolve how to divide the money. After all, starting late next month, I'm told, the new board of 11 people will come together to oversee the RSA and collaborate on a process for wisely dispersing all that money.

This team of 11 (a football huddle) will be tasked with navigating unchartered territory, with neither precedent nor statute to guide them. It's arguably the most amorphous task — and opportunity — ever presented to St. Louis.

To use another sports metaphor, this is the policymaking equivalent of a pickup game. As such, it's also the precise moment when St. Louis needs a departure from politics as usual.

The RSA board can go in one of two directions. It can perpetuate the status quo, honoring favored political elites and their priorities and biases and preconceived notions. Or it can develop as an independent entity, by seizing upon a generational moment to think outside of the box.

As anyone who has served on governing boards can attest, they can range from dynamic to dysfunctional. If a new RSA board develops a sense of its own identity, placing long-term vision above short-term politics, St. Louis' little slice of Stan's stash might blossom into something special.

But if past is prologue and if entrenched elites call the shots from behind closed doors like they always have, the chances for the RSA board to put St. Louis on a smart new path are slim and none (and Slim just left the building).

If the 11-member board emerged as an independent body with allegiances to the greater good, it certainly would represent a novel departure. With probably $513 billion in requests lined up already from the $513 million, why not try something different?

There are big-picture decisions to make regarding the apportionment of such a large sum of money for which there are no automatic buckets. Why not turn to fresh faces?

So far, the RSA nominees revealed publicly by Governor Mike Parson, Mayor Tishaura Jones and County Executive Sam Page all seem eminently qualified. Some still await confirmation.

But at the end of the day, The RSA's success will depend on its members' collective independence from St. Louis' weak political class. And lest one think that's obvious, consider the case of former County Executive Charlie Dooley, whose nomination by Page was rejected last Tuesday by a 3-2 vote of the county council.

The rejection was as justified as it was surprising. Dooley said, upon questioning by Councilman Tim Fitch, that he would vote at the RSA as Page told him to vote. Ironically, Dooley, who had integrity as county executive, would never have expected such fealty from his many appointments while in office.

Dooley is as qualified as anyone in town for the RSA gig, but his bizarre assertion that he's nothing more than Page's proxy negates the value of his own biography. It is disqualifying.

Page runs as a Democrat but governs as a demagogue. His arrogant dismissiveness of the county council he once chaired is despicable, and likely illegal. But legality isn't an impediment to him, any more than it is with his moonlighting side hustle as an anesthesiologist at a hospital in the county.

For the record, the statute that created the RSA — RsMO 67.552 (2) — states: "Up to three commissioners who shall be residents of the county may be appointed by the chief executive of the county with the advice and consent of the county council." (Italics mine.)

That's too complex for County Counselor Beth Orwick, apparently, who decreed that Page didn't need the county's approval. But to borrow the phrase Page used while deceiving Lt. Col Troy Doyle during the latter's campaign for police chief, "the police board will do what I tell it to do." Orwick always does what Page wants.

Here's hoping that in Page's case — and others — the RSA never feels an obligation to do the same.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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