Efforts are advancing slowly and quietly to evaluate whether St. Louis Lambert International Airport would be better off under private management. The slower and quieter the process is, the more likely it’ll drift away from the public’s attention and draw as little scrutiny as possible, which is probably exactly what privatization proponents want.
This newspaper has had doubts from the beginning about this process, largely because the plan to pay the consultants conducting the study seems, at least from the public’s perspective, to be front-loaded to yield a recommendation that the financial backers seek: supporting privatization. The consultants’ advisory fees will be covered by Grow Missouri Inc., which is affiliated with retired investor Rex Sinquefield. Grow Missouri’s expenses will be reimbursed only if privatization advances. What greater motive could Grow Missouri have than to ensure that outcome?
The most persistent skeptic of this process on the Board of Aldermen is Cara Spencer, 20th Ward, who has tried repeatedly to impose greater transparency on the study and give the voting public a say in what happens to this most precious of public assets. Her legislative efforts have been slow-walked, sidelined and back-burnered so many times that it’s a wonder she keeps on trying. But keep trying, she must.
Spencer’s latest effort is to seek $750,000 in federal grant money to obtain an independent assessment of whether private management of the airport is feasible and necessary. The money is available through a congressional bill allowing grants of up to $750,000 “for predevelopment planning costs” related to seeking FAA approval for privatization. It appears that St. Louis — one of the only major cities contemplating such a move — would be a prime candidate to receive the funding. So why not go for it?
“It’s free money,” Spencer says. Four entities must approve any privatization move — the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines serving Lambert, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, and the Board of Aldermen. The only one that doesn’t have a mechanism for independent review of this process is the Board of Aldermen. Without that ability, the board would have to rely on others’ assessments — which are likely to be skewed to reflect those entities’ own interests.
“You’ve got to have some kind of unbiased consultation here,” Spencer says.
So far, eight board members have signed on as cosponsors of her bill. Board President Lewis Reed and Mayor Lyda Krewson, who serve with Comptroller Darlene Green on the E&A board, have been early supporters of the study backed by Grow Missouri. Since Reed also holds authority over committee assignments for aldermanic bills, he has the ability to steer Spencer’s bill toward a legislative dead end.
This time, he should step aside and allow aldermen to proceed with the kind of independent assessment that this process so badly needs.