A gaggle of media, plus a few city marshals, showed up at Friday's meeting of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen in the hope or fear that some weirdness would break out over redistricting. But the issue that triggered a staged urination and national headlines back in July was postponed until Dec. 14, so the Fourth Estate did the next best thing -- they encircled Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th) after the brief meeting to pepper her with questions about the outrage of the week: city aldermen buying -- or trying to buy -- vacant buildings owned by the Land Reutilization Authority. Mike Owens of KSDK-TV (Channel 5) was among the electronic newshounds hovering around the North Side -- soon to be South Side, as a result of redistricting -- alderwoman. As usual, they couldn't land a glove on Sharon T; she floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.
Tyus was responding to the ministorm over Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th), who bought a vacant LRA building next door to his house three years ago and never fixed it up. Tyus had also wanted to buy an LRA property but couldn't because of a prohibition, enacted in September, on the purchase of LRA land by city officials. She noted that when Schmid bought the building, it was legal to do so.
"Your husband was on the board that did this deal, right?" Owens asked Tyus.
"The 20th Ward committeeman, Sterling Miller, was on that board," Tyus shot back, referring to her husband, who recently left the LRA board. "Unless we want to use that 'wife' thing, Mike, you don't play that game."
The crew around Tyus chuckled at the exchange, because those who make a living at hanging around City Hall are well aware that Owens is married to Ald. Lyda Krewson (D-28th), but it's not something polite people bring up in public. Krewson is expected to run for president of the Board of Aldermen next year against the current officeholder, Ald. Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th), and an African-American candidate to be named later.
During this spring's mayoral campaign, former Mayor Clarence Harmon wrote KSDK to protest Owens' being assigned to the Democratic primary because Krewson was an early and vocal backer of the eventual winner, Francis Slay. Owens appeared to go out of his way to castigate Harmon, which at the time was akin to making Spiro Agnew jokes -- yes, you can do it, but what's the point? KSDK responded to Harmon's letter, saying there was no conflict of interest and that Owens would remain on the assignment. But after St. Francis moved into Room 200, Owens seemed to do more non-City Hall pieces. At the time, KSDK news director Mike Shipley told Short Cuts that Owens was a "general assignment" reporter and covered a variety of subjects.
Owens seems to be returning to City Hall issues. He did two takes on Schmid's owning but not fixing up the former LRA house. The "news" was delivered as if Owens had just discovered the Rosetta Stone, but in fact Bob Schaper had reported this in the South Side Journal back in March, with an update on Nov. 25, three days before Owens repeated it on KSDK. Of course, when the station with the highest ratings in town says a tree fell in the forest, everyone hears it. The Post-Dispatch, a sister publication of the Journal, on Saturday ran a 10-paragraph article with the headline "Alderman Who Owns Rundown Building Has Plans to Sell It Back to City Agency." Never mind that Schmid bought the building for $2,500 after it became the source of complaints about drug use and prostitution.
Two Owens pieces that reeked of conflict of interest involved the St. Louis Police Officers Association. One dealt with former Police Chief Ron Henderson, who is still receiving his full salary as he awaits appointment as a federal marshal, a story that was peddled for weeks before Owens snapped at it. The other dealt with Grand Center's using a private security firm instead of hiring off-duty cops. The tone of both reports by Owens should have made the leaders of the police association happy. Former Mayor Vince Schoemehl, now the executive director of Grand Center, didn't hesitate to connect the dots, saying the more Owens does for the officers association, the more likely the association will endorse Krewson when she runs.
"Mike Owens is in a direct conflict in his position of covering City Hall while his wife is getting ready to run for president of the Board of Alderman," says Schoemehl. "I think there is no question that he did that piece on the security force at Grand Center strictly and solely to suck up to the St. Louis Police Officers Association to help his wife." (Four years ago, Schoemehl was employed by KSDK as a community commentator, but he resigned that position after the Democratic primary for mayor because he was backing Marit Clark as an independent candidate for the office.)
Owens says his job cuts both ways, that he's reported stories that have pissed off SLPOA. And he's aware that his spouse's political calling has been a topic with his bosses. "We talk about what I cover at City Hall. I don't cover anything to do with redistricting. I don't cover anything in Forest Park or the 28th Ward, because I can't," says Owens. "Did I cover the Schmid thing? Yeah, because it was an offshoot of a story I did weeks before about the building inspector, Eddie Geiseler, who had a condemned house."
Owens knows that if Krewson runs for citywide office, scrunity will increase.
"If she does this, then my bosses will have to say, 'What are we doing here?' I'm prepared for that," he says. "I think we do that now. I'm very attuned to the criticism and I try to make sure I'm not left open to that, which [is why] I'm so surprised that Vince Schoemehl is saying this. Interestingly enough he has time to talk to you about this; when I was doing that story, I called him three times and he not once called me back."
The problem is, too often what has to do with the city has subplots that have to do with Owens' wife. And that's an issue that will get trickier as the August 2002 Democratic primary draws closer.