The St.Louis airport privatization process plows quietly forward like a rudderless ship without a captain. No amount of warning buoys or foghorns seems to alter this ship’s course, even though rocky shores are fast approaching.
Consider the big warning sign when Deputy Mayor of Development Linda Martinez acknowledged last month that the consultants conducting the study for the city about the merits and technicalities of privatization will not actually yield a study for public viewing, even though millions of taxpayer dollars could ultimately be spent for the work of those consultants. Consider the multiple times the city’s top leadership has tried to sidestep voters and the Board of Aldermen in their quest to deliver a privatization fait accompli. Big warning horns should have blared after then-Mayor Francis Slay promised a public vote as the city’s preferred option in his preliminary federal application — only for Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration to dismiss Slay’s promise as a mere serving suggestion.
Yet another warning looms over the horizon in Denver, where that city is grappling with its own privatization nightmare. The city sought a nearly $2 billion upgrade to the main terminal at Denver International Airport through a public-private partnership. The process contained key elements of what is being discussed for St. Louis Lambert International Airport. A Spanish company, Ferrovial Airports, is the lead consortium member in Denver’s project, in which the consortium would get a 30-year lease on lucrative concessions in exchange for its work.
Construction work got underway, causing a third of the main terminal to be blocked off with temporary plywood walls, posing a major inconvenience for passengers at the country’s fifth-busiest airport. Now the work, only 25% completed, is frozen in place amid contract disputes and complaints of shoddy workmanship. To get out of this deal, the city could have to fork over $200 million to Ferrovial and other consortium members.
Because private entities are involved in this deal-gone-bad, public-information laws are falling by the wayside. This should serve as a major warning for St. Louisans: Privatization can mean a significant sacrifice of the public’s right to know details about key decisions in dispute resolutions or the operation of the city’s most important asset.
It’s also worth nothing that Slay, a big proponent of privatization in St. Louis, has been hired by Ferrovial as it weighs a bid to run Lambert airport. A paid lobbyist for the city also lobbies for Ferrovial. There are so many other overlapping conflicts of interest between lobbyists, consultants and airport clients, it’s hard to keep count.
Two Denver city council members were the lone voices of dissent when lobbyists came to their town pressing the privatization case. Those skeptics saw through all the sweet-talking and glad-handing. They raised concerns about a lack of transparency and conflicts of interest. But their colleagues didn’t want to hear it.
The council’s responsibility to conduct independent due diligence fell by the wayside. The multistage approvals process was ceded to city bureaucrats, leaving the council only with a final up or down vote at the end of the process. Out of 13 council members, 10 voted in favor, one abstained. The two “no” voters are the ones who, today, are looking really smart.
“That’s my caution to you guys in St. Louis: How is that deal being done? Is it being done on the nuts and bolts and facts of how things get built? Or is it getting done by schmoozing and wooing and being seduced by money?” Rafael Espinoza, one of the two dissenters, told St. Louis Public Radio’s Corinne Ruff. He has since left the council.
“I would just hope that your Board of Aldermen are taking the time to be thorough in looking at all the details so that they know what the long-term commitment is they’re getting the city in the middle of,” Denver Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, the other dissenter, told Ruff.
Ortega expressed frustration at being given only one week to review a 1,500-page document outlining the partnership deal before the council voted. Council members couldn’t seek outside legal advice. Financial details were excluded from the document. It turned out to be a vote of blind faith.
The Denver process compares in many ways to what’s unfolding in St. Louis. Krewson and Martinez have maneuvered to keep skeptical aldermen out of the loop. Most of the power behind this steadily advancing privatization process has been in the hands of the three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which is dominated by two strong proponents of the process — Krewson and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. The third member, Comptroller Darlene Green, is a dissenter but has been outvoted at every significant turn.
Closed-door meetings, many that last hours, ensure a cloak of secrecy hangs over the bulk of what’s being decided.
Reed insists that Denver’s experience doesn’t apply here. “Sounds like Denver left a whole lot of holes in what they were doing without a lot of safeguards,” he says, insisting that St. Louis would not repeat those mistakes. He says any member of the Board of Aldermen can, at any time, request a full briefing from a member of the city’s airport advisory working group. Reed adds that he will not approve of the Lambert privatization deal without an ironclad escape clause.
Still, there’s no question that the skeptics on the Board of Aldermen have had their concerns shunted aside, particularly regarding the issues of transparency and public input via the referendum Slay called for.
Lambert airport is this city’s most valuable asset. The public and their elected aldermanic representatives have every right to know what’s being done in their name — before taxpayers are left on the hook with a privatization deal they never asked for.