Motives in Mo. eminent domain measure scrutinized

AP News
Posted: Dec 14, 2009 4:03 PM

A Missouri group backing ballot initiatives limiting the use of eminent domain claimed Monday to have recorded evidence that opponents are using the courts to try to delay its petition drive.

Missouri Citizens for Property Rights has proposed a pair of constitutional amendments for 2010 that seek to prevent a person's home, business or other property from being condemned for private development, such as a shopping center.

A state appeals court panel is to hear a challenge Tuesday to the summaries approved by the secretary of state's office to appear on the petition-signature sheets and the ballot. Supporters are waiting for the case to be resolved to begin gathering petition signatures, which are due by May 2.

In a court filing Monday, initiative sponsors produced an audio recording of a Nov. 20 meeting of The Missouri Bar's eminent domain committee. At that meeting, a female lawyer for a firm representing the Missouri Municipal League can be heard saying that the group achieved a partial victory when a Cole County judge in June rewrote the summary for one of the initiatives. Both the secretary of state's office and the Municipal League appealed that decision.

On the recording, which was reviewed by The Associated Press, the attorney explains that the case is being appealed "with the main objective being to delay the gathering of signatures, and hopefully we're accomplishing that."

In an affidavit attached to the court filing, St. Louis attorney David Roland said he used a pen that doubles as a recorder to get the audio of the meeting. He identified the woman heard speaking as Carrie Hermeling, a partner at the St. Louis office of Husch Blackwell Sanders LLP.

Hermeling did not immediately return phone messages left Monday on her office voicemail and with her assistant.

Gary Markenson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, denied that the group's legal challenge was intended to bog down the ballot initiatives and delay the petition-signature drive. After being read the attorneys' recorded quote, Markenson replied: "That's just not the case."

"The main objective of the lawsuit was to come up with fair and impartial ballot language," Markenson added. "The ballot language that the secretary of state put on we thought was totally misleading and inappropriate."

Ron Calzone, the chairman of Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, said he filed the audio recording with the court to support a future motion seeking penalties against the law firm. He cited a Supreme Court rule prohibiting attorneys from using the courts "to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation."

Although no law prevents groups from gathering petition signatures while their ballot summaries are challenged, Calzone said it would be foolish to start now because any signatures collected under a summary later overturned cannot be counted.

With less time available to get the roughly 150,000 signatures needed for each petition, supporters will have to make greater use of paid petition circulators instead of volunteers, Calzone said. That could increase costs by several hundred thousand dollars, he added.

"We have an organization of municipalities using taxpayer resources, indirectly at least, to keep taxpayers from voting on a public policy measure _ there's something just plain wrong about that," Calzone said.