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Anti-coal group seeks city charter change to block future aid to Peabody Energy and others

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: MORE, a regional activist group that has been protesting Peabody Energy policies for months, is taking its opposition to a new level by seeking aSt. Louis charter amendmentthat would bar any additional city aid or tax breaks to Peabody or any other firm involved in "unsustainable energy production" – and any other major entity dealing with them.

MORE, which stands for Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment,plans to submit to the St. Louis Election Board  next week initiative petitions that contain more than 36,000 signatures from registered voters – about 50 percent more than need to be certified to put the initiative’s proposal before voters.

MORE seeks to get the proposed charter amendmenton the March citywide ballot.

Among other things, MORE leaders say the ballot proposal would “prohibit the city from giving public money to fossil fuel companies and anyone that does $1 million of business with them per year."

Other provisions also would mandate that the city set up “a sustainable energy plan that includes public money for renewable energy and sustainability projects and opens up city-held land for related projects.”

MORE executive director Jeff Ordower said the aim is to encourage “a local free-wheeling, people-oriented economy’’ that encourages a “local sustainable economy.” Now, he said, the current practice of the local government that focuses on “supporting big corporations or big developers” with public dollars.

“It’s a reorientation of our investment priorities,’’ Ordower added.

Among other things, he said the initiative-petition effort is aimed at blocking more city aid for Peabody. He asserted that the city opted in 2010 to award $61 million in tax breaks in order to induce Peabody to keep its headquarters in downtown St. Louis.

Peabody disputes that number, putting the city's tax breaks at $4 million.

Also in 2010, Peabody turned down $10 million in federal tax incentives available from the city,saying it wanted to help the city use the money to encourage other businesses to stay or relocate in St. Louis.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay said Thursday the office was withholding comment on MORE’s ballot proposal until the petitions were actually turned in. MORE activists plan to do so next Wednesday after a rally near City Hall.

Legality of ballot proposal challenged

However, the critics already are preparing to fight back. Jane Dueker, a lawyer and consultant, said she will be actively seeking to prevent the proposal from getting on the ballot because “this would devastate the city of St. Louis’’ and shut down many businesses, as well as city government.

Among other things, Dueker said the ballot proposal is so broadly worded that it would apply to City Hall, most businesses in the city – and even professional athletes who earn more than $1 million a year. 

She said all would be deemed as a “unsustainable energy producer,” under the ballot proposal’s wording, who are barred from any form of city assistance.  Dueker contended such “assistance’’ could even include roads and other city services.

"It would shut down city government,'' Dueker said. "It would devastate the city of St. Louis."

She also contended that the ballot proposal is "patently illegal."

Dueker added that the Election Board will likely be asked to toss out the initiative proposal because “it’s not within the scope of what’s allowable’’ under the state constitution.

Ordower replied that lawyers already have looked at the initiative petition’s wording. “We’re pretty confident it will withstand any legal challenge,’’ he said. He asserted that the Election Board cannot legally reject the petition, assuming that it meets the legal requirements for qualifying for the ballot.

Critics also plan to target the campaign committee, “Take Back St. Louis,’’ set up by MORE and its allies to advance the proposal. Dueker pointed to a $5,000 donation from the St. Louis Organizing Committee, which she said is not a proper entity to make campaign donations.

Ordower disagreed, saying that the St. Louis Organizing Committee is legitimate, and  is the group organizing the  protests that seek to increase the wages for fast-food workers.

The latest campaign report of Take Back St. Louis showed that it had raised $27,278 as of June 30, the bulk of it from MORE, but had less than $1,200 left in the bank.  The expenses included paying for some of the signature-collection services.

The back and forth between Ordower and Dueker, who also is a Democratic activist, underscores that MORE has found itself at odds with officials in both major parties. “Part of the reason we’re going to the people is that we don’t have a lot of trust in politicians right now,’’ Ordower said.

Peabody targeted over coal production, retiree dispute

MORE’s objections to Peabody, for example, center on the corporation’s position as the world’s largest private-sector coal company. Ordower said MORE’s activities are part of a national effort by environmentalists to shift the nation away from fossil fuels, and toward environmentally clean alternatives. Coal producers, he said, “are destroying the planet.”

Ordower and MORE organizer Arielle Klagsbrun also point to a poll commissioned by their camp that shows Peabody’s public standing has taken a hit, as a result of the legal dispute involving Peabody retirees.

Peabody Energy created another entity, Patriot Coal Corp.  to be financially responsible for benefits for most of Peabody’s retired miners.  Patriot has filed for bankruptcy, and a judge has ruled that Patriot can cut the retirees’ benefits.

MORE has been among the groups conducting large protests, many of them outside Peabody’s downtown headquarters, during the court proceedings.

In response to MORE’s initiative-petition effort, a Peabody spokeswoman said in a statement:

“It takes a special 'anti-everything' activist group to oppose the economic development, charitable giving and job creation of some of the city's largest employers. We're confident the people of St. Louis appreciate civic leadership and corporate responsibility, and Peabody Energy is pleased to have provided sustainable, affordable energy for St. Louis and the world for 130 years. We look to continue for many years to come.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.