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Five things to know about the legal fight over a new NFL stadium

Aerial View Looking Southwest Toward Downtown.
HOK | 360 Architecture

On Thursday afternoon, three sets of attorneys will gather in the small chambers of St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas Frawley to debate what is required of the city of St. Louis before public funding goes toward a new football stadium.

It’s one of several legal challenges to the bare-bones financing plan outlined by Gov. Jay Nixon’s two-man task force looking to keep the Rams in St. Louis.

1. How did we get here?

A clause in the contract that turned the Los Angeles Rams into the St. Louis Rams required that the stadium be in the top 25 percent in terms of quality and amenities in 2015.

Starting in 2012, the team and the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Commission, which operates the Dome, traded upgrade proposals. In February 2013, arbitrators ruled that the Rams had outlined a more appropriate plan. Later in 2013, the CVC officially rejected that proposal, leaving the Rams free to leave the city after the 2015 season. In November 2014, Gov. Jay Nixon tapped former Anheuser-Busch executive Dave Peacock and local attorney Robert Blitz to develop a plan to keep the team in St. Louis.

Concern that the Rams might bolt back to LA as soon as possible reached a fever pitch in January 2015 when owner Stan Kroenke revealed plans to help finance the construction of a new stadium near Los Angeles International Airport in Inglewood, Calif. A few days later, Blitz and Peacock unveiled their plans for a new open-air stadium north of Laclede’s Landing.  

Funding for the project would come from private and public sources, including extending the lifetime of bonds that were originally sold to construct the Edward Jones Dome. The city may also be asked to donate land and provide financing incentives or tax abatement. 

2. Who are the players?

The Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority  –  It was created in 1988 to sell the bonds that would finance the construction of what became the Edward Jones Dome. In court documents, it’s abbreviated as the RSA.

The city of St. Louis – The challenge is to a city law, so city attorneys are defending its constitutionality.

City taxpayers – Three St. Louis residents, including a co-founder of the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, are asking to become parties to the lawsuit. They fear the city will not vigorously defend the law because officials are too vested in keeping the Rams in the city.

3. What's the dispute?

The sports complex authority is challenging the constitutionality of a city ordinance pushed by the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums that St. Louis voters approved in 2002, in the midst of a debate over the funding of the new Busch Stadium. County voters approved a very similar ordinance in 2004.

The ordinance requires a public vote before the city can provide any financial assistance "to the development of a professional sports facility." The law also requires the comptroller to issue a cost estimate and the city to hold a public hearing on the assistance.

4. What are the legal arguments?

The authority says the city ordinance is unconstitutional for three reasons:

  • The 1988 law that created the RSA and laid out the funding mechanism for the Dome was meant to preempt any city law on the same topic.
  • The city’s ordinance requiring a vote on public financing conflicts with the state law. Courts have long held that cities cannot permit or require what state law prohibits, and the state law on the RSA says nothing about votes on public financing. The same argument is at the center of a pending case over limits on incentives to Peabody Energy, and may end up at the center of a fight over increasing the minimum wage.
  • The city’s ordinance is unconstitutional because it’s way too vague and puts restrictions on entities that are not legally part of the city, like the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and the transit agency Metro. The ordinance defines financial assistance as:
“any City assistance of value, direct or indirect, whether or not channeled through an intermediary entity, including, but not limited to, tax reduction, exemption, credit or guarantee against or deferral of increase; dedication of tax or other revenues; tax increment financing; issuance, authorization, or guarantee of bonds; purchase or procurement of land or site preparation; loans or loan guarantees; sale or donation or loan of any City resource or service; deferral, payment, assumption or guarantee of obligations, and all other forms of assistance of value."

In its legal filing, the city argues that it’s well within its rights as a charter city to “tailor a form of government that its citizens believe will best serve their interests.” It also argues that because the law was adopted under the city’s charter, it’s valid.

The city also contends that the RSA doesn’t have the authority to fund the new stadium. The law gives the RSA the power to “plan, construct, operate and maintain” a wide variety of sports and convention-related buildings. But the law also says they must be “located adjacent to an existing convention facility.” The proposed new stadium is on the other side of Interstate 70 from the city’s main convention center, about a half mile away. The city says that’s not close enough.

Both sides have requested that Judge Frawley rule solely on the briefs the parties have submitted, rather than hold a full trial. A judgment on the pleadings, as it’s called, would save time.

5. Who else wants a say?

Three St. Louis residents are asking JudgeFrawleyto allow them to become parties to the lawsuit the sports complex authority filed against the city. Jeanette Mott Oxford is a former leader in the Coalition Against Public Funding For Stadiums, whose successful ballot initiative essentially touched off this lawsuit. Earl Garrett is a retired St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officer. William White works in a restaurant. They’re being represented by the legal clinic at Saint Louis University’s school of law. 

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Jan. 7, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis mayor Francis Slay's willingness to "vigorously defend" a city ordinance that requires voter approval for any public support of a new stadium is being called into question.

The suit says all three want to vote on the “tens of millions of dollars” in financial assistance that the city is expected to provide toward the construction of the new stadium. They say they should be allowed to step in and defend their right to have a vote because “the City, through the Mayor and other officials and agents, has indicated its desire to build a new professional sports facility either to keep or attract an NFL team. At the same time, the City has indicated it has no immediate plans for a public hearing or a public vote.” 

“Unless the Proposed Intervenors are allowed to intervene as additional defendants, their ability to protect their interests as voters and taxpayers will be impaired and impeded, and City residents risk losing millions of dollars of their taxes without their approval, despite that a law adopted by City residents requires their approval.”

Neither the city nor the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority want the three to be allowed to intervene.

In addition to asking for permission to intervene in the existing lawsuit in St. Louis, Oxford and Michael Chance, who signed the 2002 petition, have filed their own suit seeking to force the city to comply with the ordinance.It makes essentially the same arguments as their request to intervene, and repeats the “adjacent” argument the city makes in its court filings.

Oxford has alsosued the RSA for its refusal to release documents related to the financing plan for the stadium. The RSA had argued the documents were exempt from Missouri’s sunshine law because they were part of a third lawsuit connected to the stadium plan.

That final lawsuit, filed in Cole County by a bipartisan group of six state lawmakers, seeks to block the RSA and Gov. Jay Nixon from taking any further steps to fund the stadium without an explicit appropriation from the General Assembly. Nixon has contended he has the authority to extend the amount of time the state will take to pay off its share of the bonds to build the Edward Jones Dome without action by the state House and Senate. A hearing in front of Judge Jon Beetum is scheduled for June 30.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.