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Bomb scare shifts Board of Aldermen meeting outdoors

When Alderman Jack Coatar entered a hotly contested Board of Aldermen contest, his end goal was being sworn into office in the middle of April.

But it’s unlikely that the 7th Ward Democrat envisioned his inauguration would transpire like it did on Tuesday.

“I certainly didn’t expect to get sworn in park across the street from City Hall,” Coatar said.

But that’s what happened after a bomb scare on Tuesday morning prompted an evacuation of City Hall. With a statue of a firefighter to the side, the Board held its first meeting of the new session at Poelker Park — which included a swearing-in ceremony for half of the chamber.

“I’ve never seen this,” said Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. “This is a first. I’ve absolutely never seen this happen before.”

Besides the swearing-in ceremony, aldermen took care of some procedural business before adjourning for the day. It marked the first official day in office for both Coatar and Alderman Cara Spencer, a 20th Ward Democrat who upended longtime incumbent Craig Schmid.

“I guess you just kind of roll with the punches here,” Spencer said. “This is going to be obviously a very strangely historic swearing-in ceremony.”

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told St. Louis Public Radio that police and fire officials closedCity Hall after finding “a suspicious … CO2 cylinder located on the Clark Street side of City Hall.” They eventually found another cylinder and a bag that was near an entrance.

Dotson said the cylinders were empty, but added they were left in “highly unusual places.”

“And we’re just one day past the Boston Marathon, a couple of days past the anniversary of Waco, Texas, and the Oklahoma City bombing,” Dotson said. “I think the abundance of caution was warranted this morning.”

Asked if there have been any other bomb threats in recent memory, Dotson said, “We have a system that is in place to address this.”

“Our bomb and arson unit gets lots of real-world experience,” Dotson said. “So ... our bomb and arson people are well trained.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the out-of-the-box inauguration demonstrates “that city government is resilient.” 

“We’re doing the business of the people and we’re undeterred,” said Slay, a former member of the board and a former Board of Aldermen president. “And we’re undaunted by this very terrible act by somebody. [They’re] trying to do something to disrupt us. It’s not working. We’re getting the work done. And we’re going to continue doing the business of the people.”

Like his other colleagues, Alderman Tom Villa said he’d never experienced anything like Tuesday throughout his long tenure in city and state government. But the 11th Ward Democrat said it may not be the worst idea to conduct the city’s business outside every now and then.

“It would certainly be breath of fresh air,” said Villa, who smirked a bit after delivering his pun.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.