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Government, Politics & Issues

Ellisville mayor remains in office, but loses key Wal-Mart vote

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2013: Reinstated Ellisville Mayor Adam Paul was handed his first major defeat since returning to office when the City Council voted 4-3 Wednesday night to authorize tax breaks for the proposed Wal-Mart project he had campaigned against.

But Paul’s court fight to remain in office may have gotten a boost when Wednesday’s scheduled court hearing – sought by his political critics – was postponed until July 1. The delay was prompted by a legal challenge filed by Paul’s allies.

The first-round vote on Wal-Mart came after developer Jim Sansone angrily told Paul and the council that they’d end up in court if the council backed off its May 2012 vote in favor of the development project.

At one point, Sansone asserted to Paul, “You want to do everything you can to stop it.”

The board still has to vote again to finalize the bill, prompting Sansone to successfully press for a special council meeting before July 1. Paul opposed the special meeting, but a majority of the council appeared to side with Sansone – despite visible and vocal concern from many in the standing-room-only crowd.

Paul acknowledged his longstanding opposition to tax breaks for Wal-Mart: “That’s what I campaigned on,” he said later. But the mayor added that he also recognized that the majority rules. “No one is saying that the city is not going to fulfill its obligations,” he told Sansone.

Paul contended that the issue now was the lack of confirmation from Sansone that he had a deal with Wal-Mart, and the developer’s lack of agreements with all of the affected property owners.

Amid the somewhat heated back-and-forth, Sansone said that his firm couldn’t complete any land deals until the council authorized the tax breaks, known as “tax increment financing,” or TIFs.

Sansone’s lawyer, Ron Golterman, also emphasized that the bill in question simply authorized the TIFs, and that none of the assistance would go to the developer until all of the project requirements were met – including land acquisition and an agreement with Wal-Mart.

Sansone contended that the project’s desired timeline is threatened by a lawsuit filed by an Ellisville resident, Thomas DeBold, who opposes the tax breaks. DeBold’s lawyer, Jane Dueker, has repeatedly told the council that Sansone has failed to comply with the project’s deadlines, notably land acquisition, which was to be completed by June 1.

A half-dozen police monitored Wednesday's proceedings, with more than a dozen people relegated to the entry hall because the council chambers was filled to the 76-person capacity. Some in the hall were allowed in later, when people in the chambers left.

Ellisville resident Debbie Grosz, who sat in the hall before she was escorted into the chambers, said she is among a number of residents who have attended every meeting since the controversies arose over Wal-Mart and the mayor.

"It's better than TV," Grosz said.

Council OKs study of possible new city quarters

During a special “working session” after the council meeting, also held in public, the council unanimously agreed to seek a meeting with representatives of Wal-Mart and Sansone to resolve the questions raised by Paul and other critics.

But it’s unclear if that session will be held before the expected special meeting to hold a final vote authorizing the TIFs.

Dueker, the lawyer representing DeBold, said afterward that she was disappointed by the vote and what appeared, in her view, to be a council majority eager to acquiesce to Sansone.

Sansone and his lawyer declined comment, citing the court fight with DeBold.

Meanwhile, Paul acknowledged to reporters that he disliked losing the TIF vote, but he noted that even Sansone agreed that no tax breaks will be obtained until project deadlines are met.

Paul added that he isn’t giving up. “If there is a breach of contract, we will find it,” he said.

Paul also was disturbed over losing a separate issue, when a majority of the council voted to authorize a study assessing the existing facilities of city government and the police department, which can cost up to $60,000.

The study is tied to an effort by some councilmembers, led by former Mayor Matt Pirrello, to purchase property at the edge of town being vacated by an auto dealership, Tri-Star Mercedes-Benz.

Their aim is to move city and police operations into the larger Tri-Star building, which is going up for sale. Tri-Star has offered to sell the property to the city for $3 million; Pirrello contends that the city could sell its current property just off Manchester Road for more than $2 million – once the Wal-Mart development down the road is finished.

Paul sides with some residents who say it would be cheaper to improve the city’s current setup.

Court fight delayed as Paul allies fight back

But Paul may be a stronger legal position in his court fight to remain in office. Pirrello and other political opponents succeeded in ousting Paul in April, amid allegations of various improprieties. The mayor and his allies say the fight stems from his opposition to the Wal-Mart tax breaks.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III ruled that the council and its legal team had failed to follow the city charter when they impeached him, and said Paul should remain in office during the court fight.

The council’s special counsel, John Maupin, in turn filed a motion seeking to persuade Vincent to change his mind.

But Wednesday’s hearing was delayed when some of Paul’s allies filed a legal challenge to Maupin’s motion.

Paul chuckled over the legal maneuverings: “I play poker, these attorneys play chess.”

But the upshot, for the moment, is that he remains in office. And Paul was visibly pleased with that prospect -- even if it means that, at council meetings, he may lose a few rounds.

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