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Lambert privatization plan yanked from Nov. 3 St. Louis ballot

Lambert privatization plan yanked from Nov. 3 St. Louis ballot

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Lambert International Airport

St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Thursday, June 18, 2020. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — City residents won’t vote after all on airport privatization at the Nov. 3 election, as leaders of the petition drive that got the issue on the ballot withdrew it Wednesday.

In a joint statement, officials of the St. Louis NAACP and the Carpenters Union gave no indication if they would try again at a later date to put leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport before voters.

“We have worked diligently to advance the interests of citizens, protect workers and become more competitive as a region,” said city NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt and Carpenters official Al Bond.

“While we are proud of this effort, the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the current political climate require that we focus our time and attention on other critical decisions on the November 3rd ballot.”

A leading opponent, Alderman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, said she hopes that Wednesday’s announcement means that “we can finally put this issue of privatizing the airport to death,” she said.

She added that she and other opponents had been “ready to fight in the courts” to try to keep the measure off the November ballot.

She didn’t elaborate but City Counselor Julian Bush in July had said the petition proposal was legally flawed. That was disputed by attorneys for a pro-privatization lobby group.

No reference was made in the petition committee’s statement to concerns expressed by Pruitt, the NAACP leader, on Tuesday about mounting financial losses in the airline industry.

Continued pandemic-related economic problems for airlines could conceivably limit the amount of money that bidders seeking to lease Lambert might offer the city.

But political megadonor Rex Sinquefield, a longtime backer of leasing Lambert, in a statement cited the current economic situation.

“Given the recent economic uncertainty and the impact it has had on the valuation of the airport, now is not the right time,” Sinquefield said. “I continue to believe the concept is good for the city.”

Pelopidas, a company with longstanding ties to Sinquefield, paid for much of the petition drive, donating more than $713,000 to the effort.

STL Not for Sale, a group opposing privatization, said in a statement Wednesday that “voters are sick of this scheme” that it said would help “wealthy special interests.”

The Election Board in early July announced that the petition committee had gathered enough signatures to qualify the proposition for the November ballot. The measure, a proposed amendment to the city charter, would require 60% voter approval.

If passed, the measure would have required the city to lease all or a majority of Lambert to a private operator if at least $1 billion was committed upfront to a wide range of city projects.

Aiding dilapidated areas in north St. Louis was a major goal of the proposal, which would devote substantial funds to razing contaminated vacant buildings and to new job training programs among other things.

Opponents say that the city would be gambling its single most valuable asset and that companies chosen to lease Lambert would prioritize profits over the public interest.

Meanwhile, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed said Wednesday he would put on the back burner his alternate Lambert privatization bill — also a charter amendment requiring voter approval.

He said he wouldn’t pursue his proposal again unless a new petition plan emerges aimed at a future election.

While Reed’s plan differs on various points with the petition proposal, the aldermanic measure also would channel at least $1 billion to city projects, including many in poorer Black-majority areas.

Spencer repeated her contention that the petition plan “was orchestrated leverage to get the Board of Aldermen” to put its own proposal on the ballot.

“It’s no surprise they pulled the petition (measure) off” the ballot following the board’s failure so far to pass its own bill, she said.

Reed again said he viewed his proposal as a better alternative and that he envisioned both proposals going on the ballot at the same time.

Aldermen gave Reed’s measure preliminary approval in late June but began a two-month summer recess July 17 without taking it up for a final vote.

The petition drive was announced about six months after Mayor Lyda Krewson halted the city’s two-year consideration of seeking private bids to operate Lambert. The mayor was not involved in the latest effort.

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