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St. Louis County cities file suit challenging state's municipal overhaul

Attorney David Pittinsky stands with mayors of numerous St. Louis County cities on Thursday. Pittinsky is leading a lawsuit against a state municipal overhaul.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Attorney David Pittinsky stands with mayors of several St. Louis County cities on Thursday. Pittinsky is leading a lawsuit against a state municipal overhaul law.

A dozen St. Louis County cities are challenging a far-reaching municipal overhaul, which was arguably the most significant state action taken in response to the unrest in Ferguson.

The lawsuit, filed in Cole County Court where the state offices are located, takes aim at a new law, still referred to as Senate Bill 5, that lowers the percentage of traffic-fine revenue cities can keep. It also sets standards for St. Louis County cities and provides new guidelines for how municipal courts should operate.

One of the key issues in the lawsuit is a provision in the law barring St. Louis County cities from incorporating more than 12.5 percent of traffic-fine revenue into their budgets. Cities in the rest of the state have a 20 percent ceiling. The lawsuit contends that amounts to an unconstitutional “special law.”

“I want to make this clear – it’s not about the money,” said Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy. “It’s about making a clear playing field for every city in the St. Louis County area.”

The cities filing the lawsuit are Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda Village Hills, Glen Echo Park, Bel Ridge, Bel-Nor, Pagedale, Moline Acres, Uplands Park, Vinita Park, Northwoods and Wellston. (Click here to read the lawsuit.)

Almost all of those cities have predominantly African-American populations and elected leadership. And that isn’t coincidence: Some of the towns and cities with the highest percentage of traffic fine revenue are clustered in and around north St. Louis County -- a major population center for the region's black community. Some cities like Northwoods and Cool Valley have had to consider service cuts because of the new law.

“They’re the ones who are targeted,” said David Pittinsky, an attorney who helped file the case on behalf of the cities. “And I feel very strongly that they should be represented -- and represented as effectively as possible in this fight to have this bill declared unconstitutional. Again, I point out to you that had the General Assembly passed a bill that applied to all 114 counties and had them all at 20 percent and had provided all the funding for all the new responsibilities, I probably wouldn’t be here.

“But that’s not what they did,” he added.

The suit also alleges that municipal standards placed upon St. Louis County's cities amount to an unfunded mandate, which is barred by Missouri’s “Hancock Amendment.” Murphy emphasized that some of the cities that filed suit initially pitched the idea of standards for St. Louis County municipalities – but the problem with the new law is that there’s no funding to follow through with them.

“No matter how commendable the standards may be, they have no right to impose them without the funding,” Pittinsky said.

'Stunning, but not surprising'

In a statement, Attorney General Chris Koster said that the new law “passed overwhelmingly with strong bipartisan support.” He added that it “seeks to stop municipalities from abusing citizens through excessive ticketing practices.”  

The main sponsor of SB5, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, talks about the bill as Gov. Jay Nixon, right, looks on.
Credit File photo by Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
The main sponsor of SB5, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, talks about the bill as Gov. Jay Nixon, right, looks on.

“My office will vigorously defend the bill against this legal challenge,” Koster said.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Glendale Republican, handled the municipal overhaul in the Missouri Senate. He said on Tuesday that many laws are directed at specific cities or counties – and added he expected the municipal overhaul to withstand legal scrutiny.

“The level of abuse that was taking place in my home county was astounding,” said Schmitt, referring to St. Louis County. “The level of profiteering that’s taking place by a lot of these municipalities is astounding. And so, as a matter of public policy, the General Assembly in large majorities came together in a bipartisan way and said ‘enough is enough.’ And to me, this isn’t a lawsuit against Senate Bill 5 or the division of percentages. It’s a lawsuit against the people, especially the poor, and the disadvantaged.”

Schmitt went on to say that “it’s stunning how the bureaucrats joining this effort have turned on the very people they were elected to represent.” But he said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit, considering some municipal groups were some of the louder opponents of his proposal.

“I am stunned by the tone-deafness,” Schmitt said. “But again, given that they’ve been fighting this along the way with taxpayer money, sadly I’m not surprised they’re taking this action.”

When asked whether citizens within the cities filing the lawsuit would benefit from the new law, Pittinsky replied: “What you have to ask yourself is what is proper as a matter of governance in the state of Missouri?

“It is proper to pass a statute which violates the Constitution because you think you have the knowledge – the sole knowledge – on how to prevent certain problems from occurring?” he said. “Now, [state government] hasn’t asked how these mayors are to cope with any of the problems they have. All they’ve done is say ‘We’re going to take away your money and we’re going to give you more responsibilities.’ That’s not permitted by the Constitution.”

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