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Slay postpones action on proposed water consultant contract, amid continued opposition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 20, 2013 - St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is continuing to postpone seeking any formal action on his proposal to hire Veolia Water North America as a consultant to the city’s Water Department, as his staff seeks to quell the continued controversy — which has an international twist.

Slay announced Wednesday that the issue isn’t on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the city’s chief fiscal body, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, of which he’s a member. Comptroller Darlene Green and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed are the other two members.

Instead, Slay's aides will meet with “several interested parties to hear their concerns, and to explain what the contract is and what it is not,” the mayor said.

But a spokeswoman for the anti-Veolia group says its members will continue to press for Estimate Board action to kill the contract. Some activists were slated to show up at the board’s Wednesday meeting anyway.

Slay has been under fire for weeks over accusations that his office has sought to hire Veolia as part of a move to privatize the city’s Water Department. Slay has denied that’s the case. He says he simply supports hiring Veolia as a consultant — at a cost of $250,000 — to look at the department’s operations and recommend efficiencies.

Slay has emphasized in interviews and at several candidate forums that the city Charter bars privatization of the Water Department. He also has noted that Veolia was chosen by a selection committee, not him.

“The city of St. Louis now, in the near future, medium future, and far future will control every drop of water in the Water Division,” Slay said in a statement Wednesday. “But I understand there are constituencies who have other questions about the contract and its place in international politics or its potential impact on the environment. They deserve to have their questions answered and their concerns addressed.”

Opponents fault Veolia's record overseas

A  group that calls itself the “St. Louis Dump Veolia Coalition” has called on Slay “to stop pursuing Veolia and reconvene the selection committee to choose a less controversial company.”

In a statement, the coalition refers to Veolia as “a French multinational corporation known for privatizing public resources” and “criticized worldwide for skirting environmental regulations, labor abuses, mismanagement, bribery, corruption, profiting from discriminatory policies in Israel/Palestine, and failure to make good on promised improvements.”

As an observation, Slay’s staff said in a statement, “Veolia provides services to Israel that some Palestinians ñnd objectionable.

The coalition says it has been collecting signatures from around the world on a petition calling on Slay to drop the contract.

Dozens of opponents showed up at the Estimate Board’s meeting in January to raise their concerns. The proposal then was tabled at Green's behest. She also sent a letter to Slay this week asking for further delay so that the controversy could get a thorough public airing.

Reed — who is challenging the mayor in the March 5 primary — said Wednesday through a spokesman that he opposes the Veolia contract and would support a vote to reject it.

Said Green in her letter: “There is unending controversy surrounding this proposed contract. There are allegations regarding the purpose and intent of the Water Division in the proposed collaboration with Veolia as well as serious allegations regarding Veolia’s performance and results in other cities.

“The allegations made against Veolia are serious enough that they deserve to be heard in a public forum,” Green continued. “Veolia deserves to be heard in a public forum as well. The current proposed contract between the city of St. Louis and Veolia Water North America deserves the scrutiny and input of the appropriate Standing Committee of the Board of Aldermen. “

Green noted that she had asked Reed in mid-January to set up an aldermanic public hearing, but that none has been scheduled as yet.

The anti-Veolia Coalition says it opposes a forum because it believes that the issues already have been aired adequately.

Meanwhile, Slay says he wants to make sure that the facts — not innuendo — are heard.  “As mayor, l am focused on maintaining St. Louis water quality while improving our water operations,” he said. “I am not in a position to referee difficult geo-political questions. But I do believe people have a right to be heard.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.