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Fight over new NFL stadium heads to Judge Frawley

Stadium Approach from the Southeast
HOK | 360 Architecture

It's now up to a St. Louis judge to decide whether city voters get to approve any public assistance for sports stadiums.

Circuit Judge Thomas Frawley heard about four and a half hours of argument Thursday in a challenge to a lawapproved by city voters in 2002. The Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority filed the lawsuit. That quasi-governmental agency oversaw and helped finance the construction of the Edward Jones Dome and is set to do the same for a proposed stadium north of Laclede's Landing. 

Requiring voter approval injects uncertainty into the process of trying to prove to the National Football League that the stadium will get built and that St. Louis remains a viable NFL city, said Bob Blitz, an attorney for the authority and one of two members of Gov. Jay Nixon's task force assigned to study ways to keep an NFL team in St. Louis. But he said a ruling that the vote should occur would not stop the effort to build that stadium.

"We are always creative, and pushing forward, and we are not going to stop regardless of what the judge rules," Blitz said.

Thursday's hearing centered mostly on three issues:

1. Validity

The RSA, as it's called in court documents, gave Judge Frawley three main reasons that the city law should be thrown out -- it's pre-empted by the state law creating the agency; it conflicts with state laws and even with the city's own charter; and it's unconstitutionally vague.

Courts have consistently ruled that sports stadiums are of statewide interest, said Blitz, the attorney for the authority. Therefore, state law controls in this case. And because state law does not allow for public votes on incentives like tax increment financing, the city's ordinance has to be rejected.

City attorney Winston Calvert had, predictably, a completely different take. The law that created the RSA simply says what it has the power to do. City law controls its own legislative processes.

"The direct democracy outlined by the initiative process should not be overridden lightly," Calvert said.

Calvert was also dismissive of Blitz's argument that the city law was so vague in its wording that even services like policing and public transportation would require a vote of the people. The ordinance defines "any City assistance of value, direct or indirect ..." Frawley seemed to agree with Blitz that the phrase could apply to things like sewer and trash service.

2. Adjacency

The 1988 law that created the RSA says that any "stadium, complex or facility newly constructed by the authority" must be "located adjacent to an existing convention facility." In St. Louis, that means the America's Center, at 7th and Washington streets downtown. The proposed stadium is on the other side of Interstate 70, about a half mile from the convention center.

City attorney Winston Calvert
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
City attorney Winston Calvert

Calvert, the city attorney, said Frawley needed to look no further than a standard dictionary to determine what state lawmakers meant by the word "adjacent." 

"The dictionary says that adjacent means a common border, or is built immediately beside," Calvert said. "The law just doesn't contemplate building a stadium that's not next to the convention center." 

Christopher Bauman, an associate at Bob Blitz's law firm, urged Frawley to look closely at the law. The word adjacent, he said, refers not just to the stadium itself, but the entire complex - which could include things like parking lots. And, he added, the Edward Jones Dome is itself part of a larger complex that includes the America's Center — many conventions use space in the Dome. Since parking lots for the proposed new stadium would be located just across Broadway from the Dome, the definition of adjacent is met.

"Adjacent doesn't just mean adjoining or contiguous," Bauman said. "It could even be two properties separated by a river if there was no other land in between."

Frawley seemed skeptical of Bauman's argument, asking at one point if his conclusion, taken to a logical extreme, meant a stadium in Fenton could be considered part of the America's Center complex.

The city raised the question about adjacency in its brief defending the city law. If the RSA has no authority to build the stadium, the argument goes, it cannot challenge the law requiring a public vote.

3. Intervention

Frawley did not tip his hand much during the hearing, but he seemed inclined to deny the efforts by three St. Louis taxpayers and voters to participate in the current lawsuit. They include former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, who led the effort to require public votes on stadium funding. 

"Two entities are fighting over taxpayer money using taxpayer money, and the taxpayers don't have a say right now," said John Ammann, a supervisor at the legal clinics of Saint Louis University law school, who is representing the three.

Frawley said he understood Ammann's concerns that the city did not intend to enforce the law, but said the case he was hearing focused solely on whether the law was valid. 

Neither the city nor the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority wanted Ammann's clients to be allowed to participate in their lawsuit. Chris Bauman, with the RSA, pointed out that other courts had previously rejected all the legal theories Ammann argued gave his clients the right to intervene.

"The intervenors are more interested in distraction and delay than getting to the issue of validity," said Calvert, the city's attorney. "Mayor Francis Slay supports St. Louis remaining an NFL city, and he supports the stadium, but he will follow the law."

Former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
Jeanette Mott Oxford

Oxford is party to a separate lawsuit that seeks to block the city from spending money on the stadium without a public vote. That case is in front of Judge David Dowd.

Judge Frawley did not rule on any of the matters before him on Thursday. A ruling is expected in a few weeks.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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