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Planning Commission holds hearing on proposed ice rink

FILE PHOTO: Sheila Sweeney, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, delivers remarks during an informational hearing by the St. Louis County Planning on a four-rink ice complex proposed for a portion of Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park in Maryland Heights at County Council chambers in Clayton Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Photo by Sid Hastings

Members of the St. Louis County Port Authority board had little problem two years ago approving a marketing contract for $100,000 with a firm that said it had ties to TV personality Montel Williams.

But last week, those board members didn’t want to talk about why the contract, signed by St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney, actually was for $130,000.

“I would prefer you just asked staff — Sheila’s our spokesperson,” longtime Port Authority Chair Frank McHugh said at the April 10 meeting when asked by the Post-Dispatch about the contract.

“Let’s get with staff and get all the particulars behind it,” board member Ed James said.

Board member Greg Hayden said he wasn’t aware of the discrepancy between the resolution approved by the board and the contract signed by Sweeney until the Post-Dispatch first reported it in February. He said it hasn’t come up in discussion on the board since then but deferred further comment to Sweeney and the Partnership, which staffs the Port Authority.

While $130,000 isn’t large in the context of an economic development agency that gets about $6 million a year, mostly from rent from the River City Casino in Lemay, documents show the leader of the region’s economic development agency not only signed a contract above what her board had authorized, the amount also exceeded what Cardinal Creative had actually bid.

Rallo, who has donated at least $20,000 to the election campaign of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, was also part of a group that received a nearly $500,000 loan from a Partnership-staffed entity to reduce the principal on a building the group had bought in Creve Coeur.

Rallo was also a member of a business that in mid-2017 bought two Wellston industrial parks from the Partnership-staffed County Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority. The LCRA had owned them for years and the county spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning them up in preparation for development. Development plans for the sites aren’t yet clear under the new owners.

Unlike many port authorities, the county Port Authority does little river infrastructure work. But it has wide discretion to divvy up millions in annual casino revenue. And it has now drawn the attention of St. Louis County Council Chairman Sam Page.

“I’ve certainly read the reports and concerns about some of their decisions,” Page said in an interview. “I don’t know that there have been a lot of questions about Port Authority decisions except for the past two or three years, and the only thing that has really changed is the staff for the Port Authority, and I’m concerned the board may be getting some bad advice.”

Page showed up for the first time to a Port Authority board meeting Tuesday, citing a provision in the county charter that gives him ex officio status. He wouldn’t be allowed to vote, according to the county ordinance.

Page told the board he’s “gotten media inquiries” about participation on the board. The Post-Dispatch had asked his office several weeks ago whether it was aware of the provision allowing the council chair to participate in board discussions.

McHugh indicated to Page on Tuesday that the board could use the help. Sweeney said she would go over the county ordinances with the Partnership’s lawyers but that she hadn’t known about the provision. Later, she said in a statement she was “happy he could be there” and acknowledged his ex officio status.

Both Stenger and Page are Democrats, but Page is one of the leaders of a bloc on the council that has opposed Stenger on multiple issues.

Stenger is not in charge of the Port Authority or the Partnership and has said he hasn’t had any involvement in the contracts they award. He does have the authority to appoint a majority of Partnership board members and all Port Authority members. Though current Port Authority members were appointed by his predecessors, they are all serving on expired terms, according to the county website.

Much of the leadership at the Partnership, which often drives the Port Authority’s agenda, turned over in the months after Stenger took office in 2015. Sweeney, a longtime Port Authority chair, took over as CEO of the Partnership after longtime leader Denny Coleman retired. Other top leadership at the Partnership also changed.

Ferguson fallout

The Cardinal Creative Consulting contract was supposed to be about marketing the region in the aftermath of Ferguson unrest.

But all the Partnership could point to was an op-ed from Montel Williams on an NBC website that mentioned Ferguson in the seventh paragraph and misspelled Stenger’s name. Partnership spokeswoman Katy Jamboretz also said Williams spoke with Fox News anchor and commentator Neil Cavuto to get him to “tone down” the way he talked about the region.

The Port Authority in May 2016 passed a resolution approving a contract for up to $100,000 with Rallo’s firm. That was the amount Cardinal Creative bid and it was selected over other bidders with local public relations experience that had offered to do the work for less.

But when Sweeney signed the contract July 1, 2016, it was for $130,000 and clearly spelled out three payments of $43,333 into December 2016.

It was only on Dec. 13, 2016, after the final payment, that Sweeney told the Port Authority board that another $30,000 in marketing services had been needed from Cardinal Creative.

“The original contract was approved unanimously by the Port Authority Board,” Sweeney said in a statement. “The amendment to the contract was reported to the board, in accordance with our procedures.”

A June 29, 2016, Partnership purchase order that Sweeney signed, obtained under a public records request, also references $100,000 for Cardinal Creative’s services.

It’s unclear what procedures allowed the Partnership to increase the contract amount 30 percent above what the board had authorized.

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