Port Authority comes under scrutiny from County Council for precinct’s purchase


County Executive Steve Stenger, second from left, listens to Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, address the council last year, left to right: 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor

The County Council has focused its attention on the Port Authority since police Chief Jon Belmar announced in May that the Port Authority was purchasing land at Sappington and Gravois roads to use for the St. Louis County Police Department’s new Affton Southwest Precinct promised under Proposition P.

The council is set to hear from the Port Authority’s current or former board members, depending on who you talk to, at a hearing of 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas’ Ethics Committee scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The council voted 6-1 last week to remove board members serving on expired terms, which is every member of the Port Authority, with 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, opposed. 

Among the questions about the land deal, Trakas said: Why the county is purchasing five parcels of land when it only needs two to build the precinct, whether the purchase price is based on fair market value, why no appraisal was apparently done before the contract was negotiated, whether a buyer is in place for the extra parcels and whether the county will make money on that sale.

Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, who serves as an ex officio member of the Port Authority board, said he has many questions for what he sees as his now-ex board members about the deal.

“I think this is mostly in response to a lot of the decisions of the Port Authority within the past year,” Page said. “Some of them are frightening.”

He said he believes the problem lies more with the staff members shared by the Port Authority and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, who could be misleading the board, than with the board members themselves, none of whom are Stenger appointees.

A new board might hire its own staff members, he said.

Stenger said staff members from the Economic Development Partnership are used to save money and build on the partnership’s expertise in real estate. In meetings with Affton legislators Dolan and Trakas ahead of the decision to buy the selected site at Sappington and Gravois, Trakas was told that the deal would go through the Port Authority and didn’t raise any objections, Dolan said.

The council approved a contract to design the precinct but isn’t yet ready to approve the land to build it on. By the time the design is finished, Page said a new Port Authority panel might be in place to approve the deal.

“We’re not ready to do a land deal on the south county precinct yet, we’re waiting on the design for that,” he said. “I would be wary of any land transfer that the Port Authority tried to authorize because they’re not legally constituted anymore. Any title search should demonstrate that, and any title company that writes insurance on a land transfer would be liable for that land transfer.”

But Stenger disagreed that anything was out of the ordinary about the decision to take the precinct contract through the Port Authority rather than the council.

“There’s no issue with the precinct contract, he’s manufacturing that,” Stenger said. “It’s a fabrication.”

He said that the council was delaying the precinct purchase so that there couldn’t be a groundbreaking or ribbon-cutting on it before the Aug. 7 Democratic primary in which Stenger is running for re-election against the candidate he claims Page is supporting, Ladue businessman Mark Mantovani.

Page said he wouldn’t be supporting Stenger in the election, but didn’t know yet if he would make an endorsement.