St. Louis Airport Consultant Would Only Get Paid If Privatization Goes Through

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The second terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. - FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • The second terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
Today at 3 p.m., a committee will meet at St. Louis City Hall to discuss hiring a consultant to advise the city on its plan to "lease" St. Louis Lambert International Airport — basically, allowing a for-profit company to take over the city-owned airport.

The meeting, people at City Hall caution, is only a very early step in a very long process. After the consultants are hired, they still have to find someone who wants to lease the thing and negotiate the terms. And any plan would have get approval from everyone from the Board of Aldermen to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Yet like all first steps, this one will determine where the very long process goes. And there's something incredibly troubling about the request for proposals issued by the city: It specifies that the consultant will only get paid if the deal goes through.

Yep, you read that right: The person we hire to steer this privatization process is coming in not with expert neutrality, but with the strongest incentive to make sure it closes, come hell or highly unfavorable terms for the taxpayer.

Say the consultant looks at the details and it turns out privatization makes no sense in this instance. (One non-profit think tank, as Tony Messenger reports, has concluded just that.) You think you're going to tell us that after investing hours of time into the analysis, at the cost of their own compensation?

Or say we get into negotiations and things go awry. The private company seeking to take over one of our most valuable assets wants too much, and gives too little in return. Should the city walk away? Hard to imagine the consultants waiting for their first dime of payment are going to recommend that.

It's a great way to get hosed.

Don't take my word on this set-up. The city's request for proposals (written by the Slay administration and issued in October) says it's seeking a "qualified and experienced advisory team to assist the City in developing the Airport Lease RFP, evaluating responses, negotiating favorable terms for the City, obtaining FAA approval, providing other services as described herein and in the contract, and closing the contract."

And then here's the kicker:
The proposer and all subcontractors shall not receive any compensation from the City unless and until the Airport lease transaction is closed, following the approval of the Final Application by the FAA, the receipt of all requisite local approvals and the payment of all consideration. The proposer shall specify its fee for its services and also an estimate of the costs and expenses beyond such fee, to include all services of all team members and any and all necessary subcontractors. These costs and expenses will be paid by the City from the proceeds of the lease.
I reached out to the mayor's office for an explanation on how that didn't present a massive conflict of interest, but her spokesman said the point person on the project, Linda Martinez, was traveling and not available last night.

Martinez sits on the committee that meets today, along with two other representatives from Mayor Lyda Krewson's administration: City Counselor Julian Bush and Deputy City Counselor Michael Garvin. They're joined by Deputy Comptroller Jim Garavaglia and Tom Shepherd, who works for the president of the Board of the Aldermen.

Their discussion, alas, won't be open to the public; the agenda makes clear that "sealed bids" will be discussed only in executive session. Those bids, too, don't appear to be public information. We put in a Sunshine request to view them on Friday; so far, no dice.

So that leaves us with the one thing that is public: the request for proposals. That's the very document that sets the table — and does so as if to ensure that everyone at it will be evaluating the deal not in terms of the city's best interests, but in making it go through in order to get paid for their work.

It's far from comforting. And while this is, indeed, surely a very long process, it feels like we're off to a pretty bad start.

Sarah Fenske is the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times. Email her at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com or follow her on Twitter @sarahfenske