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St. Louis Lambert International Airport

St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Thursday, May 17, 2018. Photo by Nikos Frazier, nfrazier@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — On a 4-3 vote Thursday, the St. Louis County Port Authority tabled a measure to seek a study on whether privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport is in the best interest of the region after several members worried that the county was stepping on the city’s toes.

Port Authority board member Mike Hejna, who made the motion to table the resolution, said if he were the city, “I’m going to take offense.”

“Whether (privatizing Lambert) is wise or not, frankly, it ain’t our business,” he said.

The city did take offense at the signal last month by Port Authority Director Denny Coleman and board chair John Maupin that the county board would fund its own study examining whether Lambert should be privatized, a possibility the city has been studying since 2017. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson initially called it not “very neighborly.” Her spokesman later said she was open to learning from a separate study.

In a letter sent to the Port Authority on Thursday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said the county “has a responsibility to understand potential changes that would impact thousands of its residents.” He also wrote that “I would not support the study if its purpose was to interfere with the city’s business. We all must respect the fact that Lambert is managed by the city.”

Supporters of privatization say the city stands to reap an upfront payment of hundreds of millions of dollars from a long-term lease of the airport, cash that can be used to address infrastructure and other priorities in the region’s urban core. And they point out that while U.S. mainland airports are publicly run, private operators are common in Europe.

Critics complain that libertarian megadonor Rex Sinquefield’s operation is funding the entire privatization effort, paying consultants — some of whom stand to reap a “success fee” if the airport is leased to a private operator — hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Sinquefield would be reimbursed from the proceeds of a privatization deal. And many complain that the process mostly shuts the public out because much of the discussion at the city’s airport working group meetings is in closed session.

Supporters of a separate study said the region is running out of time if it wants a second opinion on privatization because the city’s process seems to be tilted toward privatizing the airport, and it’s now evaluating companies that are interested.

“I’m afraid if we wait too long, we’re going to wake up one day and the deal with the city will be done,” Maupin said.

Board members said they should at least invite the city working group to explain its process and why the city is exploring privatization before issuing their own study. Otherwise, it’s “combative” and “wholly inappropriate,” Hejna said.

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St. Louis County Councilman Ernie Trakas, who attends Port Authority board meetings, urged the board to move ahead because any delay only “buys them time.” He referenced the lack of transparency under former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, whose political efforts benefited from $700,000 from Sinquefield and who also used many of the same consultants who are close to Sinquefield and worked for Krewson.

“The council spent the better part of two years peeling back layer after layer of corruption from the previous administration, most of it, virtually all of it, done behind closed doors,” Trakas said. “We have now going on in the city the exact same thing. Mr. Hejna does not know what they’ve done (with privatization) because they don’t want you to know.”

Trakas also asked whether Hejna was still on the board of Better Together, the mostly Sinquefield-funded effort that would have made Stenger, now in prison for corruption, the region’s powerful metro mayor. The effort fell apart after Stenger was indicted.

Hejna said he’s always been a strong supporter of regional collaboration but as far as he knows now, “Better Together doesn’t even exist.”

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