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Better Together reveals plan to merge city, county

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger talks with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson at the beginning of a presentation by Better Together where the plan to merge the city and county was revealed at the Cheshire hotel on Jan. 28.

Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

A politically connected lawyer working for a mystery client has sent letters to all 88 municipalities in St. Louis County demanding they account for any use of public dollars against the petition to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Charles W. Hatfield, a lawyer at Stinson Leonard Street in Jefferson City, sent letters on Wednesday morning saying that Missouri law prohibits political bodies from using tax dollars to oppose a ballot measure, and that even putting out information on the issue could break the law. Hatfield said he believed some of the municipalities already were.

Municipal officials decried the move as a scare tactic.

“This is an attempt to stifle me from speaking to the residents of Des Peres about what could potentially happen to their city, to their services, to their police,” said Mark Becker, the mayor of Des Peres and a partner at the Hullverson Law Firm in St. Louis. “I can’t think of anything that would be more un-democratic than that.”

Ed Rhode, a spokesman for advocacy group Better Together, which filed the initiative petition with the state, said that Hatfield didn’t work for Better Together nor its campaign, Unite STL, and that Better Together knew nothing about the letters.

Hatfield, who was chief of staff to then- Attorney General Jay Nixon and ran Nixon’s campaign for U.S. Senate, said that his client did not want to be identified but that it was someone with whom he was already doing business. Hatfield has worked for banks, insurance companies and, recently, the Clean Missouri ethics reform initiative. He has also represented the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, whose board members are appointed by St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. Krewson and Stenger are vocal supporters of Better Together.

Hatfield said he brought this issue to the attention of a client. And the client agreed that he should look into it.

Hatfield’s three-page letter sent to the municipalities contains more than two dozen requests for information. They demand, among other things, employee policies, handbook provisions, ethics guidelines and “any and all” communications pertaining to the use of public funds, the use of municipal employees, participation in campaigns, “legal theories of attack,” or dollars paid in support or opposition to the Better Together campaign.

The municipalities are required by law to respond in three days and produce the records as quickly as possible.

Pat Kelly, director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, which represents the municipalities and has come out opposed to Better Together, said the cities planned to comply with the requests. But he didn’t think there was any problem with officials’ providing information to residents.

“There’s not even ballot language approved at this point,” Kelly said.

Hatfield, however, singled out a few instances in which he said municipalities had already broken the law. One was a letter Des Peres mayor Becker wrote to residents this winter.

In a regular column in the city’s quarterly newsletter, Becker said that Better Together’s amendment, which the group is trying to get on the statewide ballot in 2020, would eliminate the municipalities, strip them of their authority over police, courts, roads and sales taxes, and turn them into “municipal districts.”

Becker may have carefully walked the line of legality in most of the letter, Hatfield said.

But at the end of the letter, the mayor gave an opinion: “This is a local issue,” Becker concluded, “that should be decided by voters in our region, not by a statewide vote. I am confident we will be discussing this more in the months ahead.”

And that, Hatfield said, crosses the line.

“I think its fine for him to share his opinion,” Hatfield said. “But he can’t use municipal resources to blast this out on the taxpayer dime to all the citizens. That’s the one that really I thought was the most clear.”

Hatfield said he also saw issues with a letter from Manchester, which he thinks stretches the truth, and a resolution from Shrewsbury, which he said declared that the whole city was opposed to Better Together’s ballot measure.

Municipal officials reached on Wednesday said they worried about the time it was going to take for their staffs to gather the records in the request.

“It’s voluminous,” Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch said.

Becker said he was once supportive of a merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

“I was looking forward to Better Together’s proposal until I read it,” he said. “I clearly think something needs to be done.

“But this is way more than I ever expected.”

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David Hunn is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.