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Keep St. Louis' convention bids secret? Bill could bar public access

Keep St. Louis' convention bids secret? Bill could bar public access

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65th LCMS convention in St. Louis

Voting delegates of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod listen to debate during the 65th Regular Convention of the LCMS on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, at America's Center in downtown St. Louis. Photo by Erik M. Lunsford elunsford@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Sen. Eric Schmitt is concerned the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission could lose revenue because its bids are open to the public.

His solution? Allow the commission to bar public access to those bids.

The commission "won't be competitive if the competition knows the terms of its offer," Schmitt, R-Glendale, said.

Schmitt tacked wording onto a House bill --passed unanimously by the Senate on Thursday -- that would allow the commission to use "reasonable judgment" when determining whether to disclose information that "may endanger the competitiveness of the business or prospects of the commission or provide an unfair advantage to its competitors."

This would not impact information about a professional sports franchise.

The commission is largely funded by tax dollars. In 2013, for instance, it reported $14 million in tax revenues, $12 million from convention income at the publicly-built America’s Center and Edward Jones Dome, and almost $7 million in “government support” – totaling more than 90 percent of its $35 million budget.

Currently, bids are not public until they’ve been awarded. The Missouri Sunshine Law, which enables the public to see records concerning the operation of tax-funded institutions, allows government bodies to withhold the public release of documents related to negotiated contracts until after the contracts are executed or proposals rejected.

The commission has resisted releasing such bids in the past, saying it would hurt St. Louis’s ability to land conventions. It ultimately relented.

The rules are not uniform across the country. Several neighboring states release bidding records after the process ends. Others don’t.

Neither commission President Kitty Ratcliffe nor board Chairman Andrew Leonard, a partner at the Chesterfield law firm of McCarthy, Leonard & Kaemmerer — and general counsel at the Kirkwood School District — immediately returned phone calls seeking comment.

But Schmitt argued on Thursday that cities competing against St. Louis for the annual National Rifle Association convention, for example, could attain the St. Louis commission's bid through a public records request and then provide an offer that's just a little bit better to secure the convention.

Schmitt said it’s a concern both before and after cities bid on a convention. His amendment could block the release of convention bids even after the contracts were awarded or lost.

Most convention contracts, however, are multi-year. Cities competing to win a convention, whether or not they hosted the convention in previous years, usually adjust their bids for the new cycle.

Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, expressed reservations about the wording, because it means taxpayers may never get the information.

The Missouri Press Association, too, is concerned about the measure because it did not receive a full vetting this session. 

The closure of records "is not in the interest of taxpayers," said Doug Crews, association executive director. "In a perfect world, everything would be open."

The bill heads back to the House. The House and Senate must reconcile any differences between their versions before sending it to the governor.

The bill is House Bill 137.

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Alex Stuckey is a statehouse reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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