March 14, 2023 - Watchdog not giving County Council free pass on weed tax proposal

March 14, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) |  Author/Byline: Joe Holleman St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A2

If the St. Louis County Council hoped that its no-debate decision to spend tax money to educate the public on another tax proposal would be ignored, those hopes have been dashed by Tom Sullivan.

And given Sullivan's long history as a government watchdog and critic, the council probably should have seen this coming.

Sullivan filed a complaint Monday with Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, taking the council to task for voting last week to spend $300,000 to mount an "educational campaign" on a proposed 3% sales tax on the sale of recreational marijuana.

On April 4, the county and a number of municipalities in the county also plan to ask voters to approve a similar 3% measure.

Sullivan said the county action is yet another case of a local government violating a state law that bans the use of public funds for campaigning.

"Just go look at Election Board website; there's always some campaign that they say, ‘Oh, it's just informational.' They do it all the time, and school districts are the worst," Sullivan said.

"But everyone gets away with it, so they keep doing it," he said. "They can just stonewall ... and little can be done to stop it."

That has not, however, kept Sullivan from trying.

On the county's action, Sullivan's complaint to the state specifically alleges that the council violated the Missouri Sunshine Law when, without published notice, it changed the original spending amount to $300,000, from $150,000.

"It is requested that your office fine the County Council members ... and also require another vote" on the proposal, Sullivan wrote Monday.

"If another vote isn't taken, then it's requested you take the Council to court and have the legislation nullified as the law allows," he said.

For good measure, Sullivan also notified Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith about the matter and suggested that federal intervention would help because local officials consistently refuse to take action "in regard to elections laws."

Goldsmith handled a number of recent high-profile public corruption cases, including those targeting former County Executive Steve Stenger and former St. Louis Aldermanic President Lewis Reed.

"They are regularly violated and elections are continually being corrupted — but local prosecutors will do nothing," Sullivan said.

Sullivan has not personally filed a lawsuit over this recent matter — in part because he already has another similar lawsuit working its way through the legal system.

That suit stems from action last year in University City, when Sullivan and other University City residents sued the city over an educational campaign for a sales-tax increase for the fire department.

The plaintiffs argued that the city broke state laws because the literature it produced on the ballot issue clearly leaned in favor of the measure.

In February 2022, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed a state law that bans the use of public funds for campaigning. That ruling stemmed from a move in 2019 by several municipalities to have the law overturned.

But then in August 2022, a St. Louis County circuit judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying the issue was moot because the election already had been held and that the plaintiffs did not have proper standing to file the suit.

Sullivan's side has appealed that ruling and filings in the Missouri Court of Appeals are due later this week.

As to the bill being passed without discussion, Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, said there was indeed some talk about the cost increase, just not before the full council.

Harder said he and Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-4th District, met with County Executive Sam Page's staff about the increase. Webb and Harder are the council's chair and vice chair, respectively.

Harder said it was agreed then that with only four weeks left before the election, $150,000 was not an adequate amount.

"So we decided to spend $300,000 to make $3 million," Harder said, then referenced the county's $41 million budget deficit. "And we certainly need the $3 million."

Doug Moore, a spokesman for Page's office, said the money would be used mostly in standard ways, by buying print and radio advertising.

Moore said the county will use Elasticity, a St. Louis marketing and advertising firm.

The language used in the campaign materials will be checked by lawyers, Moore said, "to make sure it doesn't cross that line" of showing support or endorsement of the proposal.

Only two of the seven County Council members opposed the spending: Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, and Dennis Hancock, R-3rd District.

Hancock said backers of the sales tax should have formed a committee and raised money to support their aims.