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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 — The chief attorney for the city executive branch said Thursday that an aldermanic bill seeking to require a citywide election on privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport wouldn’t be legally binding on city elected officials.

City Counselor Julian Bush told an aldermanic committee that an alternative that could pass legal muster is putting a city charter amendment on the ballot to require a public vote. If that passed, a second citywide election would have to be held on privatization itself.

Bush said an aldermanic bill simply requiring voter approval would be an unlawful delegation of powers.

“The charter as it today places with the Board of Aldermen ultimately the authority on whether or not the airport should be privatized,” said Bush. “I have serious reservations about the ability of the board to delegate that authority to the people.”

The bill’s sponsor, Alderman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, was angered at Bush’s statement. But she acknowledged in an interview that it was legally unclear whether her measure could make voters the final decider of the controversial issue.

However, she said, aldermen and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment would be unlikely to go against the wishes of the public if voters rejected a privatization deal in a nonbinding election — even if held after the fact.

“We can undo any ordinance we want,” she said, referring to the Board of Aldermen.

At Thursday’s committee meeting, Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, said he plans to introduce a proposed charter amendment to require a public vote on privatization. He called Spencer’s bill “a feel-good bill but it does nothing.”

Spencer said she also would support Vaccaro’s measure but feared that a privatization deal could be hammered out before there’s a chance for the two citywide elections needed under that approach.

A charter amendment requires 60% approval while Spencer’s bill would need a simple majority to pass at the polls.

Bush said another way to get the issue before voters might be for citizens to gather signatures to force a citywide referendum on any privatization deal once one was approved. He said the issue probably would be subject to the referendum procedure.

Bush emphasized that his view of what could be done legally on the issue was tentative and subject to change. “I have not made a complete review,” he said.

Bush is a former circuit judge and an appointee of Mayor Lyda Krewson, who is a major advocate of considering privatization. A city committee currently is reviewing the idea but has yet to decide whether to pursue it.

Another type of charter amendment requiring only a single vote potentially could be attempted.

Comptroller Darlene Green last year pointed out that the city’s preliminary application to the Federal Aviation Administration regarding privatization mentioned a charter change as one way to go about it.

That application offered that as one of two ways to legally carry out privatization, with the other being approval by aldermen. But it described the charter amendment as “the City’s preferred method.”

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Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.