St. Louis judge will decide whether plans for Dome should be public

Post-Dispatch, CVC file suits in open-records case.
2012-05-03T00:05:00Z 2012-05-14T12:29:22Z St. Louis judge will decide whether plans for Dome should be publicBY MATTHEW HATHAWAY • mhathaway@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8121 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS • The question of whether taxpayers will get to see the St. Louis Rams' proposal for renovating the Edward Jones Dome now rests in the hands of a judge.

The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission and the Post-Dispatch both filed lawsuits on Wednesday, presenting divergent arguments about records related to Dome renovations and what role public debate should have in the process.

The CVC, a public agency that operates the Dome, sought a judge's ruling on its obligation to comply with Post-Dispatch requests for copies of the Rams' plan and other documents. In a countersuit filed hours later, the Post-Dispatch sought a court order requiring the CVC to turn over the documents.

The CVC and the Rams have traded plans for how to make the Dome a "first-tier" facility by 2015 — a requirement in the team's lease for the building. The Rams' future in St. Louis could hinge on a renovation plan.

In its legal filing, the CVC says it intends to make public any deal struck with the Rams. But until a deal is reached, it argues, the talks could be hurt if the public knows too much.

"There is a very real danger that public knowledge of ongoing negotiations might adversely affect the legal considerations for any lease amendment," the filing says. "Various interest groups and citizens will have diverse and conflicting opinions ... and they will undoubtedly attempt to put pressure on the CVC, as well as elected officials."

The Post-Dispatch maintains that the public has a right to stay informed of a project involving public money and a publicly owned building that taxpayers are still paying for.

In its countersuit, the news organization says "public knowledge and scrutiny into the process is not a 'danger,' but the very thing the Sunshine Law is designed to foster."

On Feb. 1, the CVC presented the Rams with a $124 million proposal to renovate the Dome. The Rams rejected that offer, which would have required the team to pay a little more than half of the cost. The Rams also rejected another offer to shave five years from the lease's expiration date, from 2025 to 2020, in exchange for the team agreeing to drop the first-tier requirement, sources have told the Post-Dispatch.

After requests from media outlets, the CVC released the $124 million plan, but only after getting the Rams' permission.

The Rams sent their counteroffer to the CVC on Tuesday. The team said it would not publicly release the plan. The CVC also balked at making it public, rejecting an open-records request from the Post-Dispatch.

The CVC in its suit argues that records related to the Dome talks aren't covered by the Sunshine Law, the shorthand name for the state's open-records law. The CVC cites exemptions that allow public bodies to withhold certain records related to ongoing legal issues, contract negotiations and real estate transactions.

The CVC also says that if it is not legally required to release the documents but does so, it could breach a confidentiality clause in the Dome lease. That could open the door for the team to terminate the lease altogether, a CVC lawyer contends.

"We don't want to be in a position of breaking the law or breaking the lease," said the lawyer, Greg Smith. "The Rams have made it clear through their attorneys that they believe we are obligated to follow the confidentiality clause of the lease in respect to the Sunshine Law requests."

Smith, the chief executive and managing partner of Husch Blackwell, has been involved in several stadium construction deals, and he represented the CVC when the lease was written in the 1990s.

Smith also said public pressure could cause the CVC to make an offer that is too low to appease the Rams, or one that is too generous.

"The concern about pressure is a concern about both people who would have the CVC offer less in terms of improvements and people who would insist the CVC spend more than is necessary to keep the Rams here," he said.

But Arnie Robbins, the Post-Dispatch's editor, disagrees.

"In a democratic society, public input into the process is vital and should not be treated as an inconvenience," he said.

The Post-Dispatch maintains that none of the Sunshine Law exemptions apply to the CVC and Rams proposals because they pertain specifically to a lease that is already an effective contract.

"It's simple, really," Robbins said. "The CVC is a public governmental body funded by public funds. It is negotiating improvements for a publicly owned stadium that likely will involve public funds."

While taxpayers may have to fund much, if not most, of any Dome improvements, the governmental leaders of the city and county have had little to say on the issue of keeping records out of public view. Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie A. Dooley appoint 10 of the 11 board members of the CVC.

An aide to Slay said he was not available Wednesday. Instead, his office released a statement — attributed to Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford — saying the CVC should violate neither the Sunshine Law nor the lease.

"So it would be good if the courts would give the CVC some direction," the statement said.

Dooley had the same reaction.

"I support the CVC's action in court to clarify what needs to be done with the Sunshine requests from the Post-Dispatch," Dooley said in a phone interview. Letting a judge decide the issue "makes sense to me," he said.

The case has been assigned to St. Louis Circuit Judge Bryan Hettenbach.

The CVC has until June 1 to accept or reject the Rams' plan.

If the two sides don't strike a deal by June 15 on how to make the Dome first tier, they would go into arbitration, which could run through year's end. Without a deal, the Rams ultimately could terminate the lease after the 2014 season or renew it on a year-to-year basis.

The Dome, which opened in 1995, was largely financed with $256 million in bonds, and the repayment of that 30-year debt will be $720 million. Every year, Missouri spends $12 million to pay off the debt, and St. Louis and St. Louis County each pay $6 million.

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