Court to decide if county attorney violated open-government laws

Campisi’s after-trial motion ‘reckless,’ Redington tells court

By BURKE WASSON

An appellate court will decide whether County Counselor Patricia Redington violated any open-government laws when she settled a lawsuit with Fred Weber Inc. that sought to prevent the construction of a trash-transfer station in Oakville.

While the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in July approved Weber’s application for a permit to build the trash-transfer station at 5219 Baumgartner Road, a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge granted summary judgment in favor of Weber last October to construct and operate the station.

As a result, Redington then entered into a settlement agreement with Weber to drop all of the county’s litigation to stop the facility.

The County Council originally had voted 7-0 in 2004 to halt the station’s construction due to concerns from the county Department of Health.

In 2005, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that the county used faulty logic in denying Weber’s request for the Oakville trash-transfer station.

After Weber petitioned for the station, the County Council adopted an ordinance prohibiting trash-transfer stations within 1,000 feet of churches, residences, schools, child-care centers, nursery schools or nursing homes. Weber’s site for the transfer station on Baumgartner Road is within 1,000 feet of Canaan Baptist Church. But the Eastern District appellate court ruled the ordinance invalid because the county did not have a public hearing nor receive a recommendation from the Planning Commission before amending its zoning ordinances.

After the Circuit Court granted summary judgment last October, Canaan Baptist Church and Semco Plastics filed a motion to intervene in November. That motion, however, was dismissed due to timeliness.

Attorney Lester Stuckmeyer, who is representing Semco and Canaan, told the appellate court last week that his clients were improperly denied intervention because new evidence from the county Department of Health was used in the Circuit Court’s decision. That information was determined after the County Council denied the station in 2004.

Sixth District County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, also filed an after-trial motion last November to stop the settlement agreement by contending that Redington does not have the authority to settle without County Council approval.

Campisi’s after-trial motion also alleges that Redington violated the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law — also known as the Sunshine Law — by not making the settlement agreement public and not informing the County Council of it. Redington disputed claims from Campisi’s attorney, Kirk Stange, that she has no authority to settle cases and pointed out that the County Charter allows the county counselor to settle without County Council approval.

“Mr. Stange talks about my interfering with the decisions of the County Council,” she said. “That’s my responsibility. It’s to make those kinds of decisions. And the council should no more make them than I would have been able to go out and say: ‘Oh, I don’t think this council should pass what looks like a zoning ordinance. I think I’m going to go out and hire a new County Council to pass the laws.’ And that’s ridiculous. We all laugh at that idea. But that’s really the same thing that he is asking.”

But Stange maintained that while the charter does give “exclusive care and control” of court cases to the county counselor, it does not expressly state that the county counselor can make settlement agreements.

“If you look at the County Charter itself, it’s very clear,” Stange said. “It states that she has exclusive care and control over cases involving St. Louis County. Nowhere does it state that the county attorney has the authority to settle or compromise claims. And without that specific authority from the charter itself, she had no authority to settle this case.”

Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Cohen replied that if the appellate court decided that Redington’s settlement agreement with Weber could not be done, that would jeopardize all other settlements that have been made over the years by St. Louis County.

As for whether the county counselor violated the Sunshine Law by not making the settlement agreement public, Redington acknowledged that she did not file the settlement in Circuit Court.

“Where was this settlement?” Court of Appeals Judge Roy Richter said. “Was it not filed in the trial court?”

“It was not filed with the trial court,” Redington said.

“Why not?” Richter said.

“I don’t think of settlement agreements as customarily being filed with the trial courts,” Redington said.

“Well, you’re dismissing four counts,” Richter said.

“We weren’t dismissing four counts,” Redington said.

“Well, Fred Weber was …,” Richter said.

“I believe the parties filed a joint dismissal and they dismissed their action with prejudice,” she said. “You’re asking about a settlement agreement, judge. But in fact, let’s say there hadn’t been a settlement agreement at all. They could have just chosen not to appeal, and that would have been within the county counselor’s responsibilities and duties. But instead, the county secured, in exchange for not appealing, secured some commitments, which we considered significant and substantial on the part of Weber. And so, the settlement agreement was available to anyone. It was not hidden. It was produced without being requested, actually.”

Stange later responded that for residents to be aware of the settlement, Redington should have informed the County Council.

“In filing this case, what I tried to do is protect the Sunshine Law,” he said. “And that’s what my client (Campisi) is trying to do as well to ensure we have open government and so the citizens of St. Louis County have confidence in their government. The issue that still hasn’t been addressed today is there hasn’t been one affirmative fact cited by the county attorney as to how she made this settlement agreement public.”

“What is she supposed to do?” Richter said. “Is she supposed to provide it to the Riverfront Times or the (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch? How do you do that with something like this?”

“She certainly could give it to her own client, the St. Louis County Council, whose decision was being appealed,” Stange said. “She could have certainly filed it in the court file itself. But when the settlement agreement’s entered into in October and the first time my client sees it is Nov. 16, that’s not in compliance with the Sunshine Law.”

Redington termed Stange’s after-trial motion filed last November as “reckless” and asked the appellate court to “dismiss the appeal and impose sanctions.”

“Mr. Stange’s motion, I believe, was completely frivolous at the trial level,” she said. “And I believe it was sanctionable. Actually, I did think about filing for sanctions. It was a reckless motion. It was substantively frivolous. And on top of that, it was filled with bitter, baseless, very offensive invective.

“I’m a public person and I am expected to take certain hits … On the other hand, my dad reads the newspaper and he doesn’t like to read and I don’t like to see charges that I’ve committed stunning ethical misconduct and serious professional misconduct when all I’ve done is exercise the duties that were imposed upon me by the charter.”