ST. LOUIS • The city does not need voter approval before spending tax dollars on a riverfront stadium, a judge ruled Monday, jumping another hurdle in the race to keep the National Football League in St. Louis.
Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley declared invalid the city ordinance requiring a public vote, calling sections “too vague to be enforced.” The law has so many “uncertainties,” he wrote in his ruling, “their sum makes a task for us which at best could be only guesswork.”
Moreover, Frawley ruled, the placement of the new stadium, along the riverfront just north of downtown, does not break a state law requiring that the building be “adjacent” to the convention center. It is close enough, he said.
“Adjacent,” Frawley wrote, “has commonly been interpreted by Missouri courts to mean ‘near or close at hand’ ” — and not necessarily, he continued, “touching each other.”
Proponents quietly celebrated the victory. Dave Peacock, one of Gov. Jay Nixon’s stadium task force members, praised the legal team as “extraordinary” and called for “everyone in the St. Louis region” to rally behind the stadium effort.
“The court’s opinion is a victory for a bold and promising future for the NFL in St. Louis and the continued rebirth of our downtown,” Peacock said in a statement.
“We can make it happen,” he continued.
Nixon lauded the task force for continued “solid progress.”
Mary Ellen Ponder, chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay — who supports the stadium development — nevertheless called Frawley’s decision “very disappointing.”
She said in a statement that, by declaring the ordinance invalid, Frawley essentially barred the city from scheduling a vote as authorized by that law. Still, she committed the city to public meetings “and other opportunities for public participation” regarding stadium financing.
In addition, she said Slay’s office will ask the Board of Aldermen to “consider a new ordinance that requires a public vote for future projects and can survive a judicial challenge.”
Maggie Crane, the mayor’s communications director, said the city was considering an appeal.
The ruling quickly drew outbursts from critics.
St. Louis University law professor John Ammann, who has filed a separate suit to force a city vote, called it a “terrible day for democracy.”
Ammann’s clients moved to intervene in the suit, filed against the city in April. The public Edward Jones Dome authority, acting on behalf of Nixon’s task force, had challenged the 2002 city ordinance requiring a public vote before spending tax money on a new stadium.
But Frawley denied Ammann’s clients’ request in a related ruling on Monday. Ammann said he was meeting his clients Monday afternoon and expected they would want to appeal.
Fred Lindecke, who helped pass the city ordinance, said he thought his group had followed the law on the initiative petition. “The people voted,” Lindecke said. “And now the judge has said forget all that. It makes me angry.
“The law is as clear and straightforward as you can get. It covers every kind of technique known to man for getting into the taxpayer’s pocket,” he continued. “And it says very clearly, without ambiguity, that people have a right to vote before any of their tax money is used to build a stadium. I would hope that someone in city government would be as upset as I am, and would try to do something about it.”
Regardless, the ruling represents another step toward a new football stadium, now expected to cost $998 million.
Nixon’s task force has recently outlined current financing estimates: It hopes for about $250 million from team ownership, a $200 million National Football League loan to the owners, $187 million in tax incentives, $201 million in state and city bond proceeds and $160 million in seat license sales.
The task force is making progress on some of those pillars: It has recently applied to the state for tax incentives. It is lining up riverfront land. A recent NFL market study suggested the effort could sell $200 million in seat licenses.
And now the task force has a judge’s decision invalidating the law requiring a city vote.
Frawley’s rulings released Monday are more than 40 pages long.
He disagrees with some of the task force arguments — made by Jones Dome attorney Robert Blitz and a member of his firm, Chris Bauman. At points, Frawley is even dismissive.
But the judge spends at least 10 pages of the main ruling, nearly a third of it, tearing apart the city ordinance in question.
He finds that some parts of it, such as those requiring a public vote before certain tax-incentive programs can be applied, directly conflict with state law. But mostly, he writes, the city law is just too vague to be enforced. Can the city conduct internal discussions about the stadium without a public vote? Can it send police and fire services, paid by tax dollars, to the new stadium site without a vote? And who will write the ballot measure to be voted on?
None of those answers, Frawley writes, is in the city ordinance.
Blitz, a task force member, praised Frawley’s analysis and said the stadium team was plowing ahead.
“We have one goal,” Blitz said. “We will see it through.”
NFL owners meet next week in Chicago to hear from teams interested in moving to Los Angeles. Representatives from the St. Louis Rams will, for the first time, present owner Stan Kroenke’s plans to build a stadium in Inglewood, Calif.