May 27, 1999
Webster /Kirkwood Times
by Don Corrigan
Local residents filed a legal action in circuit court on Tuesday to force the Webster Groves City Council to place the issue of labeling genetically-engineered foods before the voters.
The residents, along with members of the Gateway Green Alliance, have urged the council to pass a largely symbolic measure putting the city on record in support of federal or state regulations calling for the labeling of genetically-engineered foods.
After the council balked at their request in the fall, the residents took the initiative petition route. On March 16, the county election board certified 480 petition signatures in favor of a city stand on labeling, thus validating the number necessary to put the labeling issue to a vote on an upcoming ballot.
However, the council has since argued that it is under no obligation to put the issue on the ballot. In an April 6 press release, city council members contend "that initiative petitions that seek administrative action regarding non-local issues are not proper."
Those filing the action against the city on Tuesday included Gateway Green Alliance, Stephen Cassilly, Wil Volker, Gabriel Marie Hoare, Ann Grace, Patricia Clewell, Janis Cramer, Tedford Lewis and Joseph E. Halley. Mayor Gerry Welch and the full council were named in the suit for actions in their official capacities.
"It's very disappointing that the rights of citizens are treated with such low regard," said Cassilly. "We followed the rules, now we have to file suit to get those elected to serve us to do the same."
Cassilly said the city council was caving in to the demands of Monsanto Company of St. Louis, rather than abiding by the wishes of residents expressed in a legitimate petition initiative. He noted that Monsanto, which is a world leader in the field of genetic engineering in agriculture, has had representatives at this year's city council meetings.
Henry Robertson, a lawyer who represents the local activists along with attorney Christopher Simms, said a judge has scheduled a hearing on their legal action against the city for July 12. He said that if the city continues to balk on the ballot initiative, it will obviously miss the 90-day deadline for putting certified initiative proposals on the ballot.
"If council members choose to ignore the initiative, the court will order them to put it on the ballot through a writ of mandamus," said Robertson. "They need to abide by their own city charter.
"It's my understanding that the city attorney, Helmut Starr, is paid by the hour, so continuing their current course of action is clearly not a good use of taxpayers' money," added Robertson. "It would be far better for the council members to simply follow their own city charter and to place the issue on the ballot."
Robertson said the city's argument, that the initiative involves a non-local issue with administrative rather than legislative intent, is specious. He said the brief in the legal action cites any number of cases in which local entities have put similar issues on the ballot.
"The Webster Council itself voted a few years ago to oppose the transport of nuclear waste through the area," said Robertson. "This is clearly a case where the municipality took a stand on something out of its jurisdiction."
Helmut Starr, city attorney for Webster Groves, drew a distinction between the council action on the nuclear waste transport issue and the current controversy over labeling genetically-engineered food.
"There's a difference between a council itself taking an action on an issue, and being compelled to speak on someone's behalf," said Starr. "The council does not want to get into the position where every group that comes along with a cause wants the city to take their stand. They should not be compelled to do that."
On Wednesday, Starr said he had yet to examine the court papers filed against the city. He said he fully expected the city to present its side on the initiative issue on July 12. It's possible some "friends of the court" might also testify on the city's behalf, but the city would not actively seek out such support, according to Starr.
Starr repeated the Webster council members' assertion that the labeling issue is not in the sphere of municipal concerns. He noted their view that a study underway by the National Academy of Sciences to review the benefits and potential risks of genetically-engineered crops and foods is a more appropriate forum for the concerns of local activists and Gateway Green Alliance members.
Copyright 1998-9, Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc., St. Louis, Mo.