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St. Louis airport privatization saga continues at Board of Aldermen

St. Louis airport privatization saga continues at Board of Aldermen

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Lambert International Airport

Although there is still no waiting at a ticket counter, St. Louis Lambert International Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, says airport volume is up to about 25 percent capacity. In the depths of the pandemic, she says, volume was down to about 5 percent. Hamm-Niebruegge adds that cleaning protocols put in place help, she hopes, travelers feel more comfortable about coming through the airport, seen Thursday, June 18, 2020. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — The fight over privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport is continuing at the Board of Aldermen amid jockeying involving alternate proposals to put the issue before city voters in the Nov. 3 election. Opponents, meanwhile, are fighting both measures.

The latest wrinkle occurred Thursday night when a proposed resolution declaring the board’s intent to not back a privatization plan proposed by a petition drive was withdrawn by the sponsor. A hearing had been scheduled on the resolution for Friday morning.

The resolution sponsor, Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, said he yanked his proposal because he no longer believes it’s needed now to trigger negotiations between backers of a privatization plan pending at the board and the petition plan.

He said he still believes that there will be such talks soon between Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, who is pushing the aldermanic plan, and petitioners. The goal would be to have just one proposal go before voters in November.

The petition drive was pushed by the St. Louis NAACP and the Carpenters Union and funded mainly by a firm tied to political megadonor Rex Sinquefield. The city Election Board last week determined that the drive gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The board last week voted 14-11 to give Reed’s measure tentative approval. A final vote by the board on whether to put the proposal before voters is expected before aldermen begin a two-month recess on Tuesday.

Alderman Cara Spencer, an outspoken opponent of either Lambert lease plan, had said Oldenburg’s resolution would have given Reed some political leverage in getting the board to give his measure final approval before a two-month recess begins Tuesday.

She noted that under the city charter, after petition drive signatures are verified by election officials, the board has 60 days after its next meeting to consider the proposal and then petitioners have 15 days after that to consider withdrawing it.

Taking the entire 60-day period would keep the petition plan from meeting the state’s Aug. 25 deadline for getting on the November ballot. The 15-day withdrawal period would end after the Sept. 8 deadline for court orders adding to the ballot.

Oldenburg said petitioners could decide to withdraw theirs at any time during the period if an agreement was reached with the board.

Spencer, D-20th Ward, says leaving open the possibility of the petition plan going on the ballot also serves as a backup plan should Mayor Lyda Krewson veto Reed’s bill if it gets through the board.

Krewson and Reed both supported the city’s earlier two-year study of privatizing Lambert that the mayor halted last December.

Mayoral spokesman Jacob Long says Krewson hasn’t been involved with the recent privatization measures and has said she now opposes privatizing Lambert. The mayor hasn’t taken a position on whether she would sign Reed’s bill, Long said.

Meanwhile, Adolphus Pruitt, city NAACP president, said he hopes that only one privatization plan gets on the ballot but “at the end of the day, if it’s two, it would give citizens more options.”

Although the petition and Reed bills have differences, they both would require the city to lease the airport if a bidder offered at least $1 billion upfront to fund a wide range of city projects. Many are aimed at improving the lives of people in poorer neighborhoods.

Spencer and other opponents say leasing Lambert would make the city a guinea pig for an untested idea and turn over the city’s main asset to companies putting profits over the public interest.

Spencer, meanwhile, has asked City Counselor Julian Bush for a legal opinion on whether the petition plan would require two citywide public votes on leasing the airport as former City Counselor Jim Wilson believes.

Wilson says one vote would be in November on an ordinance to schedule a charter amendment vote, the second on the actual privatization amendment next year.

Pruitt disagrees with that view and says only one election would occur under the charter.

Because Reed’s bill in itself would be an ordinance setting up a charter amendment election, only one public vote would be needed if it gets through the board, Spencer said.

Under Wilson’s interpretation of the charter, she said, the Reed bill would be the only way to channel more than $40 million from Lambert lease proceeds to a nonprofit funded by Sinquefield and two other consulting firms.A 2018 contract with consulting firms that worked on the city’s earlier consideration of privatization allows them to get paid from any future plan worked out by next July.The two-election scenario envisioned by Wilson wouldn’t allow that timeline to be met, said Spencer, who’s running for mayor against Krewson next year.Reed vs. TyusThe Lambert privatization issue also could come into play in an ongoing dispute between Reed and Alderman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, over recent delays in moving bills to the floor by a panel she chairs.Reed says the panel, the rules committee, in various cases hasn’t acted during the time period allowed by the city charter for performing the ministerial function of engrossment. That’s the procedure of ensuring that changes made to a bill during the legislative process were incorporated correctly.The charter, Reed noted, says the committee must act not later than the first board meeting held more than three days after a bill is amended.At a board meeting Wednesday, Reed allowed the board to vote on and pass two measures that Tyus’ committee hadn’t sent to the floor but had finished engrossing.Tyus on Thursday didn’t comment specifically on why the committee hadn’t moved some bills yet to the floor for final votes but said “there are political reasons.”“You have to use your power to leverage,” Tyus said, saying that one of her bills is stuck in another committee. She didn’t elaborate.Tyus cited another charter provision that allows committees to hold bills 30 days before the full board can vote to remove them and bring them to the floor.Reed said that doesn’t apply to the rules panel and the ministerial duties it carries out. Unlike other committees, he said, it doesn’t hold hearings and take public testimony on proposed legislation.Reed’s airport bill, which won tentative board approval June 29, is scheduled to be taken up for engrossment Friday by Tyus’ committee. Mary Goodman, Reed’s legislative director, said under the charter and board rules, it should have been engrossed by the next board meeting July 2.

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