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St. Louis Lambert International Airport

Passengers walk through a hallway in Terminal 2, Thursday, May 17, 2018, at St. Louis Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. Photo by Nikos Frazier, nfrazier@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — Efforts to require a citywide election on privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport were dealt another setback Thursday as an aldermanic committee voted 5-0 to table the idea.

Meanwhile, committee chairman Marlene Davis blasted St. Louis County and St. Charles County officials who recently called for a more regional approach on studying the city-owned airport’s future, saying they should also offer to help fund Lambert.

“If they want to have some say-so, write a check,” said Davis, D-19th Ward. “If you don’t write a check, go somewhere and sit down and shut up.”

At the same time, Davis said she will invite those officials — St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, County Council presiding officer Ernie Trakas, County Port Authority interim director Denny Coleman and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann — to speak to her committee.

Tabling the legislation to put privatization before voters means it will take a two-thirds vote of the committee to bring it up again, said the aldermanic chief clerk, Terry Kennedy.

The election legislation’s sponsor, Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, said “I’m disappointed the committee decided to put an unnecessary hurdle to public engagement on (the city’s) largest asset.”

However, Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, said he asked that Spencer’s election bills and another related to the airport be tabled so the committee can spend more time on the issue. He said he wants to produce one comprehensive measure leading to a “weigh-in from the citizenry” via a public vote.

One of Spencer’s bills would simply call for a citywide vote on privatization before any lease deal could take effect. The city’s chief attorney has said such a vote cannot be binding and that the final decision would still rest with the Board of Aldermen and other city officials.

Also tabled was a Spencer bill to put on the ballot a city charter amendment that, if passed, would require binding voter approval for leasing Lambert. Then a second citywide vote would be needed on privatization itself.

A two-election process might take too long to have a practical effect because a potential lease deal could be in place by the end of next year.

The aldermanic panel, the Transportation and Commerce Committee, also tabled a bill by Spencer that would require the city to apply for a federal grant to hire a consultant to advise the Board of Aldermen on the Lambert privatization issue.

A separate group of consultants has been hired by the city’s top fiscal body, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

Spencer didn’t object to delaying action but said tabling her bills was unusual and unnecessary. Spencer has been trying for more than a year to get aldermen to schedule an election on the controversial issue.

Even if the Board of Aldermen doesn’t act, the issue could still get before voters via an initiative petition drive that has been gathering signatures.

Davis’ decision to ask the suburban officials to appear before her panel was suggested by Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward. He said he was alarmed at recent news reports on their comments. Mayor Lyda Krewson also has been critical of the suburban leaders’ comments.

Coleman, the county port authority official, last week said that his agency is looking at studying Lambert privatization because there’s a place for “perhaps a more transparent look” than one being done for the city estimate board. Page and Ehlmann also backed the idea of an outside study.

That was followed on Tuesday by Trakas’ introduction of a proposed County Council resolution criticizing the city’s “closed, non-transparent studies” of privatization, noting that they are entirely funded by political megadonor Rex Sinquefield.

A Sinquefield-related entity, Grow Missouri Inc., is paying for the entire team of consultants and will be reimbursed only if a lease deal is approved.

The Trakas resolution, which was put on hold, also urges the city to hold a nonbinding referendum on the issue and for St. Charles, Jefferson and St. Louis counties to poll their own voters.

Before dealing with Spencer’s bills, the aldermanic committee also was briefed by officials with a city committee studying the privatization process.

City Budget Director Paul Payne, who chairs the Airport Advisory Working Group, said a “request by qualifications” seeking potential bidders for leasing Lambert is expected to draw more than one company by the Nov. 1 deadline. No formal responses have been submitted yet.

He said the working group, if it decides to seek actual bids, could send out “a request for proposals“ in early December.

Asked if a market analysis and financial information devised by the city consultants would be released to the general public, Payne replied: “Not yet.”

He said that eventually would be disclosed if a deal was finalized.

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Flap over documentary

Also Thursday:

• Payne and Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge complained at a working group meeting that a Sinquefield affiliate, First Rule, had produced a documentary on Lambert expansion without the working group’s knowledge.

Payne said he worried that the documentary, which is to be previewed at an event in Richmond Heights on Tuesday, may advocate privatization, based on statements made in an invitation he received a copy of.

Payne said that would be at odds with the working group’s role. “We’re not promoting privatization,” Payne said. “What we are doing here is evaluating whether that’s a good idea (and) does it make sense.”

He noted that Sinquefield associate Travis Brown heads both First Rule and the working group’s consulting team. “Having a separate entity and Travis involved with both of those is problematic for this communications process,” Payne said.

Brown could not be reached for comment Thursday.

• One working group consultant, Glenn Muscosky, said the committee may soon hire another consulting firm to assess opportunities to develop real estate owned by Lambert. That’s one of the issues that companies seeking a lease deal will be asked to address.

Blunt's son joins lobbying effort

Meanwhile, Andy Blunt, the son of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has become the latest influential lobbyist to sign on with one of the companies expected to submit a bid.

Missouri Ethics Commission records show Blunt registered Monday as a lobbyist for STL Aviation Group LLC, which is owned by California-based Oaktree Capital Management. He is one of seven lobbyists retained by the company.

Former Mayor Francis Slay is a lobbyist for another company interested in operating Lambert, Spain-based Ferrovial Airports. Slay began the city’s consideration of Lambert privatization shortly before he left office in 2017.

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