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Public weighs in on whether residents should get to vote over leasing St. Louis airport

St. Louis Lambert International Airport
Michael R. Allen | Flickr
Residents testify on a bill that calls for a public vote on any future proposals to lease or privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

A few dozen residents gathered in a hearing room at City Hall Wednesday for an unusual nighttime hearing on a proposed bill that would require a city-wide public vote on any deals to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

It was the first of three hearings held by the Board of Aldermen’s Transportation and Commerce Committee.

The city of St. Louis applied to be part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s privatization pilot program in April 2017. This summer a group of consultants, led by the non-profit Fly314, began a process, expected to take 18-24 months, to request bids to lease the airport.

That group has said a vote of the Board of Aldermen, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the FAA and the airlines would need to approve such a move, but not residents.

Alderwomen Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, is pushing for a public vote.

She told the committee when city residents approved a $2 million bond issue in 1928 to purchase Lambert Field, the city was grandfathered into a revenue sharing program that makes the airport the city’s largest asset.

“The city enjoys almost $7 million a year in direct revenue from Lambert to our general fund,” she explained. “This is an income that is in serious jeopardy if we do decide to privatize. Why would we want to risk that?”

Reginald Garth, a resident of the 28th Ward, shared a message similar to nearly all those who spoke before the committee.

“Privatizing the airport - something of this magnitude should be in the hands and the decisions of the people,” he said.

Several members of a grassroots citizens’ group STL Not For Sale were on hand at the hearing to support a public vote. The group is working to gather signatures in order to put the question on the ballot.

“If the board bill fails, we can get the vote on the ballot,” said member Glenn Burleigh. “We only need 6,000 signatures.”

To date, the group has gathered 1,500 signatures and plans to reach its goal of 10,000 by next August.

Aldophus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP, was the only speaker who expressed some opposition to the bill. He said his issue was not with the public’s right to weigh in, but the timing.

Pruitt cautioned that a vote not be taken before knowing all the facts about a potential lease agreement that he believes could be worth $2.5 billion.

“If we do a vote prior to that, it is sticking our heads in the sand,” he said. “The city and especially the folks I represent deserve the opportunity to know if we can get that kind of investment and determine how that investment is spent.”

Alderwoman Marlene Davis, D-19th Ward, sits on the Airport Advisory Working Group, which is working with consultants regarding privatization. She also is chairwoman of the Transportation and Commerce Committee and said the committee was there to listen.

“Committee members will not be asking questions tonight. And we won’t answer questions here in order to give more time to the public speakers,” Davis said. “If you need information, let us know, and we will get it for you.”

Outside the hearing room, paid workers for the FLY314 group’s marketing and communications team were soliciting people to take a survey designed to inform citizens of the airport privatization process. The workers are going door-to-door throughout the city with a goal of completing 25,000 surveys.

The canvassing process by the marketing team has been criticized by STL Not for Sale and Alderwoman Spencer as being biased toward privatization.

After the hearing, Spencer said she was pleased with the turnout and the opportunity for residents to give their feedback about her bill.

The next public hearing for bill is scheduled for Oct. 13 at St. John the Baptist Parish, 4200 Delor St., at 10 a.m. Another hearing is scheduled for Oct. 15 at the Greater Pentacostal Church at 6080 West Florissant Ave.

Follow Melody on Twitter: @melodybird