The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday night moved forward with a report requesting the U.S. attorney and Missouri attorney general investigate government leases initiated by County Executive Steve Stenger and some of his donors.
By a vote of 5-0 with one abstention and one absent, the seven-member council approved a report from its Ethics Committee calling into question whether County Executive Steve Stenger took campaign money from developers of the Northwest Crossings (NWC) legally.
Councilman Pat Dolan, 5th District, was the lone member to abstain, saying he needed more time to review the 105-page report, which he said arrived at his office at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Councilmember Colleen Wasinger, 3rd District, was absent from the meeting.
The report alleges Stenger and his staff ignored the advice of the St. Louis County Department of Public Works when negotiating the leases of NWC, which went to the county’s Workforce Development, Board of Elections and a satellite office for the county assessor.
Those leases include contracts with Bob and David Glarner, who according to the report have given Stenger’s campaign over $365,000 as of April. The report goes on to describe the handling of the leases as unusual.
The council is backed the committee’s call for federal or state law enforcement agencies to investigate whether Stenger broke any laws when he moved some county operations to NWC.
While the council was mostly in favor of moving forward with the report, some members of the public spoke out in support of the expansion and development of NWC.
St. Ann city administrator Matt Conley was among three public forum speakers who said quarreling within county government over NWC is affecting St. Ann’s ability to bring in more business to the site and the region.
“One of the things that gets lost in the politics of what’s going on these days in St. Louis County is what we’ve accomplished at the Crossings,” Conley said. “Six and a half years ago there was very little hope of redevelopment. To me, it’s very disheartening to hear some of the negative things that keep coming up regarding the politics. I hope that after all of this is done we can figure out how to complete this project because with this constant negativity it’s hard enough to get good tenants in there.”
President of North County Inc., Rebecca Zoll, said the more than 2,000 jobs that have been added in St. Ann because of the NWC development were needed and that they need more to keep improving north St. Louis County.
“This project has allowed for advancement in the north St. Louis County community within the past few years and we appreciate that focus on our area,” Zoll said. “I recognize that you have concerns about what has happened at the Northwest Plaza site, but this development has brought so many jobs to our community. It took a blighted, delinquent site that no developers were willing to look at before and tried to turn it into something viable that serves as a point that all of our communities can now be proud of.”
Menards and a Charter Communications call center have already moved into NWC while Save-A-Lot has expressed interest in moving its headquarters to the NWC site with tax incentives. It has turned down offers from cities in Kentucky and even Kansas City but is still awaiting a bill from the county council to give them some $4 million in incentives.
Council Chairman Sam Page said the council delayed a vote on that bill for another week to get more information on Save-A-Lot’s lease.
Conley said the city of St. Ann moved forward with two ordinances earlier Tuesday that would give Save-A-Lot some of those incentives and is prepared to go further.
According to the Ethics Committee report, officials with Public Works told Stenger’s office entering into the new leases in Northwest Crossings would cost more than continuing existing leases and that the terms of the leases were more strict than others.
The report said the total rental price would be between $75 million and $83 million, and that the county could have built its own facility for $28 million. The committee asked the council to take the matter up with the U.S. attorney and Missouri attorney general’s office. The leases were approved by the council in July of 2016.
“The council’s report is a baseless, politically motivated, August election hit piece. The Crossings at Northwest is one of the great economic success stories in St. Louis County history,” Stenger said in a written statement issued after last week’s meeting. “The once-dead Northwest Plaza now supports over 2,800 jobs, over 20 employers and generates $328 million in annual revenue. We are proud of our part in this rebirth. Suffice to say, we are more than happy to have anyone review the matter and confident they will reach the same conclusion.”
The committee, including council members Ernie Trakas, Sam Page, Hazel Erby and Mark Harder recommended in their report that county voters “adopt campaign finance restrictions and eliminate the county executive’s authority to present spending proposals in a false budget plan, amend the purchasing code to require that proposals for a lease include a detailed cost analysis and have the council consider voiding and terminating the Northwest Crossing leases.”
This is yet another clash in a long line of them Stenger has had with the council in recent months. Nearly a month ago, the council overrode five of Stenger’s vetoes, ranging from raises for county jail employees to a measure which would put a cap on political campaign contributions — both of which were recently approved by the council. Three of the five were charter proposals which will go on the August ballot.
Stenger is running for re-election this year and will face Democratic challenger Mark Mantovani in the Aug. 7 primary.