Sunset Hills Citizen Alleges PetroMart Vote Was Improper

Alderman's company does business with project's developer

01/25/2013 - Kathy Tripp, who took on Sunset Hills City Hall when it tried to redevelop Sunset Manor via eminent domain in 2005, is once again raising issues with the city.

Tripp is alleging that laws were broken Dec. 11 when the board of aldermen and Mayor Bill Nolan voted to approve certain aspects of Land West 7's plan to build a PetroMart on the site of the old Bob Evans restaurant.

In an email sent to area newspapers last week, Tripp stated she had formally requested from Nolan and every alderman letters disclosing any personal or private financial interests they may have in PetroMart, Land West 7 or First Bank (owners of the former Bob Evans site on Kirkwood Road).

The email names only Ward 1 Alderman Richard Gau, and states he agreed on Jan. 14 to meet with Tripp and former alderman Frank Hardy (whom Gau defeated in the 2012 municipal election) at city hall.

Tripp stated that during the conversation, which she said was recorded, Gau acknowledged his company, John Henry Foster Co., did $8,000 of business annually with Land West 7 and that, according to Tripp's email, "an official of Land West 7 allegedly threatened to withdraw his business ... if the (PetroMart) did not pass."

Gau was one of four aldermen to vote yes on a preliminary development plan and conditional-use permit request that advanced the PetroMart project.

On Tuesday, Gau acknowledged he had met Hardy at city hall at Hardy's request and when he arrived, Tripp was also there. Gau said he was not aware the conversation was being recorded. Gau did acknowledge his company - of which he is the chief executive officer - does a small amount of business with Land West 7.

"We are a distributor of hydraulic and pneumatic equipment. We do business with many industrial-type businesses in Missouri and southern Illinois," Gau said. "I'm sure we sell parts to various other gas-station type businesses like the Circle K Shell."

The Circle K has fought the proposed PetroMart, which would be built directly across Kirkwood Road from it.

"Upon becoming aware of the business with Land West through one of our salesmen and this alleged 'threat' to withdraw their business, I then contacted the mayor and we did discuss this situation," Gau said. "We did not think it was or should be an issue."

On Wednesday, Mayor Nolan echoed that he "didn't think it was an issue."

"I know that (Gau) contacted me, and I believe he also spoke to at least half of the board of aldermen when he found out that there was a potential issue with (Land West) and his company," Nolan said. "Rich was very open about it. He agreed to meet (with Hardy). And his company is privately owned so I don't know what their annual sales are, but they are a multi-state operation. Does the CEO know about an $8,000 account?"

"Did this business have any affect on my vote on the PetroMart proposal? Unequivocally, in no way, did this impact my decision on this proposal and the allegation is totally without merit," Gau said.

Gau, along with other aldermen, opposed the initial PetroMart proposal, which would have included a traffic light at Monica Drive and a concrete median on Kirkwood Road between Watson Road and I- 44.

When those aspects of the proposal were abandoned, Gau dropped his opposition, saying he is "pro-development" of a site that has sat vacant for seven years.

"I decided to run for alderman to step up and get involved and to the best of my ability try to make a difference," Gau said. "It is unfortunate that more time, energy and attention gets spent on all the negativity rather than on proactively trying to make a difference and move our city in a positive direction."

According to Tripp, any subsequent vote for this project on Feb. 26, when the board next meets, "would bring additional concerns."

"The citizens of Sunset Hills place their trust and confidence in our mayor and aldermen to act in our best interests," Tripp said. "When an individual has the responsibility to represent another person -- whether as administrator, attorney, executor, government official or trustee -- a clash between professional obligations and personal interests arises if there is a potential for the personal interests of an individual to clash with his/her fiduciary duties as a representative of our city."

City Attorney Robert Jones could not be reached by press time.

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