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Vacant North Oaks Plaza office

St. Louis County moved its workforce development office from its longtime home here in Northwoods in February. But the county still owes nearly $3 million in rent for the next seven years.

CLAYTON • What were officials in County Executive Steve Stenger’s administration thinking when they made the decision to abandon an office in Northwoods even though taxpayers were still on the hook for $2.3 million in rent?

And are there similar problems with leases elsewhere in the county?

Stenger’s office is making that hard to know.

As the Post-Dispatch reported on Nov. 6, the county abandoned the 37,000-square-foot office  that housed the Missouri Job Center. Employees were transferred to a new county government complex in the former Northwest Plaza shopping mall in St. Ann. The developers of the project, brothers Robert and P. David Glarner, were friends of Stenger who have donated $325,000 to his campaign.

On Nov. 3, the Post-Dispatch asked record custodians from Stenger’s office and from the county’s Department of Human Services to provide all records about potential plans for the office after abandoning it, all plans and requests for proposals to renovate the space, and any communication with the landlord.

The newspaper also asked for any correspondence between county officials that discussed the newspaper's earlier request for access to related records.

The newspaper sent the request to two county offices because Stenger’s office asked the Post-Dispatch to direct requests to individual departments.

The newspaper asked both record custodians to waive any fees for providing access. The state’s open records law allows for the government to provide access to news media when it is likely that such access could lead to greater public understanding of government.

For example, when the county charged the newspaper $357 for a database of county vendors to be printed on thousands of sheets of office paper, Stenger intervened  and made an electronic version of the database available.

The state Sunshine Law requires public agencies to respond to a request for access within three days. The law lays out three valid responses: the public agency can provide the records on time, deny the request and cite the portion of state law that allows the records to be kept confidential, or to explain why more than three days were needed and provide a date and time the records would be ready.

Andrea Jackson, the human services director, responded on the third day to say she needed two more weeks.

Her letter emphasized she was only speaking for her department. She later turned over a handful of emails from within her department that concerned the reporter’s request.

The custodian of record for the county executive’s office, Glenn Powers, never responded.

A reporter asked for an update on Nov. 21. Powers responded to say the newspaper’s request for a fee waiver was denied. The county wanted $590.

Asked to explain the charge, Powers responded Dec. 1, saying the research would take six hours of work at $62.50 per hour, two hours at $42.07 and two hours at $37.26. Plus, there were 570 pages at 10 cents per page to copy.

He said it was “standard practice” for the county to charge. The law allowed for some discretion, he wrote, “but you should make no assumptions about our following standard policy on this request.”

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