Paul Jacob

Our out-of-touch and out-of-control federal government generates most of our political grumblings. Washington is the government furthest away, and takes the biggest bite out of our wallets — to simultaneously wreak the most economic havoc through their complex matrix of subsidies, regulations and mandates.

Yet, the sort of arrogance, corruption and political bullying we’ve come to expect in national politics, has now reached Everytown, USA.

St. Louis, Missouri, to be specific.

Last week, Gustavo Rendon was arrested in broad daylight — right in front of his two boys. One St. Louis policeman threatened that his sons would be sent into foster care.

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What horrific crime did Rendon commit? He passed out fliers to his neighbors. He spoke out on public policy — opposing an eminent domain land grab and promoting a petition effort to put the city’s development plan to a vote.

After being held for nine hours, Rendon was released and the trumped up charge against him was quickly (and sheepishly) dismissed. There probably is a legal case here, though: Rendon suing the city of St. Louis for big bucks for flagrantly violating his rights.

Dave Roland, an attorney for the state’s Show-Me Institute, argued on the group’s blog and on Charlie Brennam’s KMOX radio program, that this is much more than a one-time overstepping of constitutional authority by a couple of rogue cops. Roland calls it part of “an unsettling pattern of government officials trying to prevent the people from having their say.”

Overwhelming majorities of Americans oppose the current culture of eminent domain. And yet the abuse continues unabated. Governments regularly transfer property from one private owner to another — by force — for no purpose other than a vague claim of “economic development,” measured by nothing more than increased tax receipts.

Our local politicians shed crocodile tears, claiming that their larceny is laudable as the necessary by-product of “saving the economy” or “revitalizing neighborhoods.”

But such alleged developments have to be weighed against that other by-product: Namely, the abuse of our fundamental right to speak and to petition our government.

In their zealous desire for more tax receipts, politicians become heedless of basic rights.

Roland points to a number of assaults against First Amendment rights that are in part tied to the government’s addiction to taking private property though eminent domain. Perhaps the most nose-on-the-face obvious is the continuing legal saga of the city’s attempt to force Jim Roos to take down his sign protesting St. Louis’s abuse of eminent domain.

But the example Roland finds “most disturbing” is the Missouri Municipal League’s opposition to two statewide initiatives that would end eminent domain abuses. The League has filed a lawsuit challenging the ballot titles for these two measures, effectively putting the petition drives on hold.

As radio host Charlie Brennan exasperatedly explained, “Their own cities and towns are funding a lawsuit against them with their own tax dollars.” Perversely, the Municipal League gets its funding from cities and towns . . . which, remember, get their money from taxpayers, who overwhelmingly want eminent domain to be reformed.

Municipal League attorney Carrie Hermeling acknowledges that voters are likely to pass both initiatives, given the opportunity. But if the League can keep its lawsuit going, Hermeling notes that, “They aren’t going to be gathering signatures.”

And thus voters can be denied a fair and free choice on the issue.

The “they” Ms. Hermeling refers to is Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, the group promoting the two initiatives. The group’s leader, Ron Calzone, fears that legal wrangling over the ballot title is simply a backhanded method of blocking the opportunity for voters to consider his group’s two measures.

Calzone’s group, facing a May 2010 deadline to gather over 200,000 signatures on each petition, is held hostage to this litigation.

Now, in this gotcha era of technology, comes Dave Roland with a recording of comments made by Carrie Hermeling at a recent meeting of the Missouri Bar Association’s Eminent Domain Committee. Hermeling publicly admitted that the lawsuit’s “main objective” is “to delay the gathering of signatures.” Adding, “Hopefully we’re accomplishing that.”

Thwarting the people, denying basic rights — all to ensure the continued right to steal their property. Quite an accomplishment.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.