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What Happened To A Public Vote On St. Louis Airport Privatization?

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis city officials are considering whether to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

A St. Louis alderwoman is questioning why the city has pivoted away from a public vote on the potential privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, has been pushing for a public vote for more than a year through her proposed legislation in the Board of Aldermen. So she was surprised to see a public vote had been suggested when the process first got off the ground.

Upon a closer look at the preliminary application submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2017, Spencer said she recently realized a process involving a public vote was outlined as the preferred method for granting the city the authority to lease the airport. 

That process would have first required a petition to be signed by at least 10% of city voters to trigger a vote to authorize the mayor to "enter into and execute a long-term lease of the airport," according to the application. [Editor's note: See pages 3-4 of the document embedded below.]

But under Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration, Spencer says the city has quietly pivoted away from such a vote. 

“My question right now, very specifically, is what has changed?” she said.

The two options

According to that preliminary FAA application, St. Louis city officials proposed two ways to allow the city to allow airport privatization under the city’s constitution. 

The first option, which has prompted Spencer’s question, involved drafting a charter amendment that would specifically allow the leasing of the airport and address how the revenue from a lease would be used.

The application details how the city was already in the process of drafting a charter amendment. The plan was to circulate it among registered St. Louis voters, gathering enough signatures to trigger a special election. The Board of Aldermen then could vote to pass the amendment or allow a public vote to take place. 

The city’s application said that process was expected to take about 300 days. Yet before passage of the charter amendment, the mayor would have had the authority to start the process of developing a request for qualifications and proposals.

The application also listed a second possibility: the Board of Aldermen could vote to amend an ordinance to allow a private lease to take place.

Why was the second option chosen?

Spencer said she has not heard back from the mayor’s office regarding the rationale as to why the city moved away from the option preferred by former Mayor Francis Slay’s administration.

But Linda Martinez, the mayor’s appointee to the working group considering privatization, recently addressed the question on St. Louis on the Air.

“If you read very carefully, the proposal was to submit to the people a charter amendment that would delegate solely to the mayor the opportunity to make a decision,” Martinez said. “This mayor said, ‘I don’t want to use that approach.’”

Instead, the mayor chose to pursue the option giving a vote to the Board of Aldermen and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The FAA and the airlines operating out of Lambert will also vote on any potential proposal.

With a charter amendment change, Martinez said the mayor felt she would have been given too much discretion over the final decision.

“Mayor Krewson came in and said, ‘I do not want to have this process rest solely on me as an individual. I want it to be the inclusive process.’”

When asked whether she supported a public vote this summer, Krewson said she didn’t think there was anything to vote on.

“I’m surprised that the Board of Aldermen would want to give up their authority and say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I support it or not; let’s take it to a vote of the people,’ but if they decide to do that at that point in time, then that’s what they’ll decide to do.”

Martinez said the FAA has been informed of the city’s current process and timeline.

An FAA spokeswoman told St. Louis Public Radio that a city’s preliminary application is not binding until it receives final approval from the FAA at the very end of the process.

Other avenues for a public vote

Though an update to the FAA wasn’t required, Spencer said she feels the public was left in the dark about the switch.

“It is really shocking to me that the underlying mechanism by which we’re granting the authority to move forward has so significantly changed without a single peep to the public, to the Board of Aldermen or otherwise regarding that,” she said.

Spencer has introduced three bills to force a public vote. All have stalled in committee. It’s unclear whether she has the votes needed for a discharge motion, which would bring them to the floor without a vote.

An activist group, STL Not for Sale, also is pursuing a public petition calling for residents to weigh in on the possible lease of the airport. 

Josie Grillas, one of the group’s organizers, said they’re hoping to collect enough signatures to trigger a special election. Grillas estimates the group has collected about 7,000 of the 12,000 signatures needed.

“The signatures are coming in at more of a trickle, you know, a year in than when people were first volunteering and gung ho, but we have not stopped collecting signatures,” she said.

The city’s Airport Advisory Working Group is finalizing preliminary negotiations with the airlines and is expected to put out a request for qualifications soon to vet any potential bidders. 

If the city moves forward from there, it would put out a call for proposals. Once an agreement is hammered out, final city approval of any possible transaction then would be required from the Board of Aldermen and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

Read more: St. Louis' Preliminary Application for the FAA's Airport Privitization Program, March 2017:


Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the process by which a public vote on airport privatization could occur. Under the preferred plan outlined in a 2017 application to the FAA, St. Louis voters would have decided whether to amend the city's charter, authorizing the mayor to lease the airport. 

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.