Quit Looking Over My Shoulder

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

May 31, 2000 at 4:00 am
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."

Slay, naturally, didn't see it as a stunt. He thought that, if pressed, Harmon would let the press in. "I was surprised he took it that far and resisted the press' being there," Slay says. "Anything that resulted as far as any controversy basically in my view was prompted by him."

Miller stresses that because Harmon wants a public vote on any stadium proposal, these early discussions are not that critical. Miller says there has been no formal request for public money for a stadium. "There's no note from the Cardinals, 'May we please have x dollars from the city of St. Louis?' That hasn't happened yet." The key word in that phrase is "yet."

GEORGE DORIAN WENDEL, HAIL AND FAREWELL: Not everybody wanted to hear what George D. Wendel had to say, but that didn't stop him from saying it. The city was in trouble, its population was in a free-fall decline, and the jurisdictional constriction of the city's 61-square-mile landmass put new, dire meaning in the term "city limits." More than once he was referred to as being full of "doom and gloom." But mostly he spoke the truth, at least as he saw it, and mostly it's turned out to be the way he predicted. When GDW arrived here from Chicago, it was just after the 1950 census counted the city as having 857,000 people. Census estimates for 1998 show 339,316 people in the city. Short of a sensible merger of city and county, Wendel spoke of other forms of cooperation within the metropolitan area and lately had pushed for reform of the city's 1917 charter. For a 72-year-old professor and founder of St. Louis University's Center for Urban Programs, it was an admirable, if tedious and difficult, thing to work on. Most of the hamlet-brains in this town are protective of their feudal fiefdoms, be they one of the 90-odd suburban duchies, the unincorporated expanse of the county or some nook or cranny of St. Louis' City Hall.

When GDW died on May 23, it was unexpected, but he went out fighting the good fight. Gone with him is a vast institutional memory of St. Louis and a voice that could speak to mayors and Civic Progress types without being conned by Regional Chamber and Growth Association hype. And above all, he was a teacher. He used to say in his class that it was OK to sleep -- just don't snore. Few ever slept, because even if you didn't agree with him or know where he was going, he had a line of patter that could sell umbrellas in the desert. The fact that his admonitions about metropolitan merger and cooperation went unheeded might just show how screwed up this River City is.

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: KMOX (1120 AM), the faltering "Voice of St. Louis," tried to put its best spin on the loss of the hockey Blues broadcast, but anyone who knows the baseball season doesn't last through the winter knows the Blues' move to KTRS (550 AM) will hurt the station's image, if not its ratings. KMOX broadcast 78 of the Blues' 82 games last year, but the idea that crucial late-season games were pushed over to KFNS (590 AM/100.7 FM) reinforced the Blues' perception that they were a redheaded stepchild in the KMOX family. KMOX countered by calling the baseball Cardinals the "crown jewel" of St. Louis sports and admitting that the Cardinals' contract states that "all games must be aired in full." So what will KMOX do to fill all those winter nights? Maybe Harry Hamm has some downtime in his schedule.... What was KSDK (Channel 5) thinking Friday night? OK, maybe nobody there was thinking when they cut into the last minute of the Portland Trail Blazers-Los Angeles Lakers game to have Cindy Preszler tell us a tornado had been sighted in Bowling Green, Mo. Quick -- where is Bowling Green? In Pike County, about 80 miles northwest of St. Louis. Of course they didn't cut into the commercial, just the game. Coverage resumed as the ball was being turned over. Jeez. And KFNS, in a typical move, broadcast motor racing Sunday night instead of the Portland-LA game. When is sports radio not sports radio? When it broadcasts auto racing. Vrroom, vrroom.

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