CLAYTON • The St. Louis County Council voted 5-0 on Tuesday night to ask the federal government and the Missouri attorney general to investigate the county’s multimillion-dollar real estate deal with County Executive Steve Stenger’s biggest campaign donors.
Stenger did not attend the meeting, which saw the council attack or slow down a handful of his initiatives. Though the county charter requires the county executive to attend council meetings, Stenger hasn’t been seen recently. Last week, he attended a blood drive in Fenton, and this week he was helping install air conditioners in Hillsdale, according to his Twitter feed. In a text, he called the council’s action a “political rampage” orchestrated by councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District.
Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-3rd District, was absent. Pat Dolan, D-5th District, Stenger’s lone ally on the council, abstained from voting, saying that his colleagues had not given him time to review the matter.
The council’s ethics committee held a series of hearings to investigate the county’s 20-year lease for office space at the former Northwest Plaza in St. Ann. Using tens of millions in public subsidies, developers Robert and P. David Glarner rebuilt the complex with new retail and office space, with the county as one of its main tenants. But now the council says it will consider voiding the lease, saying Stenger has been enriched by $365,000 in campaign donations from the Glarners.
Stenger has repeatedly dismissed the council’s action as intended to hurt his bid for re-election. County residents have said “loud and clear” that they support the redevelopment of the former St. Ann shopping center, he said in a text.
St. Louis County’s lease for nearly 150,000 square feet there will cost taxpayers at least $69 million and could run as high as $77 million, according to the newspaper’s analysis of the county’s real estate contracts. It does not seem to allow the county any chance to back out.
Stenger’s administration initially touted the deal as saving taxpayers $10 million. A Post-Dispatch investigation revealed in February that the project had the potential to cost millions more than previously disclosed. County Council members set the ethics hearings after the newspaper’s report, saying Stenger’s administration had misled them.
The hearings revealed that Stenger’s administration largely kept those dealings out of the hands of career county government employees who were normally in charge of site selection and negotiations. Some of those employees expressed dismay at the unusual process. And officials in Stenger’s administration had to scramble to prepare for millions of dollars in increased costs associated with the project after the council ratified the deal in July 2016.
Also on Tuesday, the council put off for at least another week a vote on approving Stenger’s request to provide tax subsidies for the Save-A-Lot grocery chain to move its headquarters from Earth City to the complex, now known as the Crossings at Northwest. Council chairman Sam Page said that the council wanted to review Save-A-Lot’s lease before deciding whether to award the subsidies but that the grocery firm had not agreed to provide it.
Matt Conley, St. Ann city manager and a vocal proponent of the Crossings, told the council to end the “negativity” surrounding the project. He called Save-A-Lot “a corporate tenant in St. Louis County … that is caught up in this mess. They were willing to make a $20 million investment in the new corporate headquarters to produce 60 new jobs.”
The council is expected to authorize next week Stenger’s administration to spend $1.4 million to design two new county police stations for north and south St. Louis County. The council did not have enough members present Tuesday to finalize the deal.
The council had delayed the vote because it has accused the St. Louis County Port Authority of mishandling the land acquisition. But several council members said they wanted the project to move forward.
The council also voted Tuesday to advance a bill that would bar Port Authority board members from serving on expired terms, a move designed to force Stenger to reappoint board members who would then be subject to council approval. Port Authority Chair Frank McHugh declined to discuss the matter with a reporter earlier Tuesday.
Jacob Barker of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.