Watching Creve Coeur politics is like taking in The Sopranos -- you never know who's gonna get whacked. The latest casualty in the feuding 'burb is Judy Pass, a City Council member who resigned rather than face another inquiry over an alleged conflict of interest.
"For the last two years my political opponents have been making false statements and accusations about me," Pass wrote in a resignation letter submitted January 3. "Since their untruthful and vicious statements are phrased as an opinion, they protect themselves from libel and slander laws. In resigning, I hope to put these petty, partisan attacks behind me and the city."
Pass quit just days before the council was set to debate the conflict question. This time, two of Pass' council critics, Laura Bryant and Pati Trout, were joined by Councilman David Kassander. Bryant has been on Pass' case since at least October 2001 -- more than a year after Creve Coeur Mayor Annette Mandel named Pass, an ally, to an important land-use planning committee [Dreiling, "Slaphappy," November 20].
Bryant contends that appointing Pass violated the city's conflict-of-interest ordinance because the committee is getting legal advice from the Stolar Partnership, which employs Pass' husband, Jeffrey Pass. Bryant's complaint came up at the same time others were barred from working on the land-use plan because of their alleged conflicts.
Despite the criticism, Mandel stuck by her appointee. Last April, the council took up the question and by a vote of 5- 1, with two abstentions, backed Pass. Later, Creve Coeur's ethics commission followed suit, in effect recycling a decision it reached back in 1991 -- the last time a conflict-of-interest issue was raised about Pass. Even the Missouri Ethics Commission took a pass on the issue.
Mandel and Pass responded by taking the unusual step of suing their critics for libel and defamation. The two elected officials were represented by hotshot local lawyer Alan Mandel, the mayor's husband. Defendants in the lawsuits, filed in May in St. Louis County Circuit Court, included Bryant; Bryant's husband, Keith Prokop; Jeanne Rhoades, a community activist; businessman and former Creve Coeur-Olivette Chamber of Commerce president Bob O'Connor; chamber executive vice president Vi Smith; and resident Terry Johnston.
Mandel's suit didn't get far; Judge David Vincent dismissed the case in August. The mayor has appealed; arguments are set for February 6 before the Missouri Court of Appeals' Eastern District. In December, Judge Maura McShane dismissed several defendants in Pass' case, and Pass later dropped the remaining defendants.
Mandel and Pass may have hoped to silence critics by going to court, but the lawsuits had the opposite effect. The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed friend-of-the-court briefs describing the lawsuits as examples of SLAPPs -- strategic lawsuits against public participation -- whose sole intent is to discourage opposition and free speech.
The defendants' courthouse victories didn't end the controversy. Kassander, who'd kept his distance from the flap, decided it was time to give the issue yet another look.
Alan Mandel questions Kassander's motivation. "You've got two people [Trout and Bryant] and David Kassander, God love him -- I think he just likes the attention the women are giving him." Mandel says.
"David is one of these nerdy guys that, you know, he likes the attention he's getting from Laura and Pati."
Kassander did not return telephone messages.
As for Bryant, Mandel says: "This is a personal vendetta. This all stems from when Laura [Bryant] was not made chair of planning and zoning. This is very, very sick stuff."
But Bryant's not the only one pressing.
Rhoades, the community activist, recently filed yet another complaint about Pass with the state ethics commission.
And O'Connor, the former chamber president, says he won't stop asking questions: "I'll be done when city government runs in an open, objective and realistic way."
Another sign it's not over: An early battle won by Alan Mandel has come under attack.
The decision by the city's ethics commission to rely on the 1991 opinion is being challenged by two of its former members. In 1991, before joining the council, Pass was allowed to join a community-center committee even though the Stolar Partnership was working on other city business. At the time, the ethics commission decided that because the committee's business was "totally unrelated" to the legal matter, there wouldn't be a conflict. Alan Mandel last year convinced a new ethics commission that the 1991 opinion still applied.
Just last month, J.W. Kisling and Leslie F. Loewe, commission members in 1991, wrote commission vice chair Carol Schulman, saying that "circumstances" had changed and that the earlier decision might have "set an inappropriate precedent."
Whether the current commission will reconsider is unclear. One member, retired Post-Dispatch managing editor David Lipman, won't be there to weigh in. He resigned in November -- just after the Riverfront Times published a story about the controversy. Lipman cited travel as the reason for quitting.
But Alan Mandel is still perplexed about the situation. "Other than suing them, we've never done anything personal to any of these people," he says. "We kind of lost the public-relations battle, but Annette and I are big people; we can take it."
Well, he can take everything -- except maybe the photo of him the RFT published in November: "You took the worst possible picture of me."
"Everybody said I looked like Tony Soprano."