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MetroLink and Stadium funding bills perfected

St. Louis Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed oversees a debate on a bill about MetroLink expansion by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. The Board of Aldermen perfected the MetroLink bill and a bill partially funding a new MLS soccer station. Both bills now need final approval at Friday's Board of Aldermen meeting, and the city's legal counsel will then ask a circuit judge to put it on the April 4 ballot. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Lewis Reed was for the Scottrade Center renovations that are to be financed by $64 million in city bonds. Then he was against them.

Now he’s “100 percent” on board again.

In a matter of hours last Friday, Reed, the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, flipped and flopped like the January version of St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen, floundering on the ice as the goals, er, votes, flew by.

For a man who hopes to be mayor, the circumstances surrounding his vote-a-rama on an issue of public subsidy involving major campaign donors add up to a troubling trend.

Reed says he can’t be bought, but donors seeking his favor seem to think otherwise. In that regard, the Scottrade Center bill — which passed in a series of Friday votes — tells an interesting story.

It started in November. On the first and second of that month, Kiel Center Partners LP gave $5,000 each day to Reed’s mayoral campaign. Kiel Center Partners is the leaseholder of the Scottrade Center. Its general partner is Tom Stillman, chairman and majority owner of the St. Louis Blues. The checks written to Reed were the only political donations made by Kiel Center Partners to any candidate or committee in Missouri since 2011. Two weeks later, St. Louis businessman David Steward, co-founder of World Wide Technology, and a minority owner of the Blues, chipped in with $50,000.

In January, when the Blues announced their proposal to ask the city to pay part of the renovation costs on the city-owned Scottrade Center, Reed was front and center as the sponsor of the bill. He became the proposal’s chief cheerleader as various aldermen questioned the amount of money the proposal would take from general revenue at a time when the city’s finances are in tough shape.

The bill struggled to get out of committee but was finally poised for its big debate in front of the full Board of Aldermen last Friday. Just three days before that meeting, Reed received an additional $100,000 donation from Steward. On the morning of the meeting, reporters from the Post-Dispatch and elsewhere were asking questions about the Steward donation. Then the St. Louis Business Journal posted an article online connecting the donation to that day’s debate.

Here’s where it gets weird.

Some aldermen, led by Cara Spencer of the 20th Ward, wanted the board to slow down on passing the Scottrade subsidies, coming so quickly on the heels of the approval of two measures for the April 4 ballot on a sales-tax increase for MetroLink and a $60 million subsidy for a new Major League Soccer stadium downtown. Spencer asked for the bill to be sent back to committee for further study.

Aldermen voted to go full speed ahead, with Reed, the bill’s sponsor, on the winning side. Shortly thereafter, the bill was perfected, 17-11. In normal circumstances, the bill would have then come back for a final vote at the next meeting, which would have been after a spring recess. But after a break, with social media buzzing about Steward’s donation, aldermen came back and passed a motion to suspend the rules so that they could take a final vote to pass the Scottrade bill.

Reed was one of two aldermen to vote against the motion. And when the bill — his bill — came up for final passage, he flipped his vote to no.

It’s not because he was suddenly against the public subsidy, Reed said.

“I didn’t see the need to rush it,” he told me. “We had more time.”

To recap: He was for rushing before he was against it. And he voted yes on the bill before he voted against it — on the same day.

Now that it’s passed, Reed is back to being 100 percent for the bill.

The entire affair reminded me of the last time I wrote about Reed flipping a vote. It was last summer, and after having taken three votes over several months to support the creation of the Biddle House homeless shelter north of downtown, Reed suddenly delayed the project after he received political donations from the law firm opposing its location on the north side.

At the time, Reed told me that Mayor Francis Slay controlled the agenda of the city’s three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment, and that often, Reed, one of the board’s three members, didn’t know for sure what he was voting on.

It was a curious defense for a man wanting to be mayor, I suggested to Reed at the time. Now he’s added a new twist to his flip-flopping rationalization. As aldermanic president, Reed says he is too weak to stop a bill from rushing through the process of getting two votes in one day.

“I don’t have that power,” he said, when I asked him why he didn’t stop the board from such unusual action if he was opposed to it. “There was nothing I could do to stop it.”

As president of the Board of Aldermen, Reed is telling voters that he has no control over whether aldermen rush a bill through the board over which he presides.

For a candidate whose campaign donations tend to appear near the time official action is taken to help a donor, it’s an interesting campaign strategy: I’m not corrupt. I just don’t know what I’m doing.

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