Group Will Gather Signatures to Demand Public Vote on Airport Privatization


Two weeks after St. Louis city officials signed off on hiring consultants to explore privatizing its airport, two efforts are underway to ensure the plan doesn't become reality without a public vote.

Alderwoman Cara Spencer says she is lining up co-sponsors for a board bill to require the public to weigh in before any private firm can lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport. And a group of concerned citizens calling themselves STL: Not for Sale announced this morning they are pursuing a parallel track, circulating petitions for an initiative to achieve the same result.

Some of the people in STL: Not for Sale were involved with the previous effort to force a state audit of the city — and in that case, merely circulating the petitions was enough to get the aldermen to act. Once the board formally requested the audit, the citizens stood down.

Glenn Burleigh, a volunteer with the group, says he hopes to see a similar outcome here. “We are going to do everything in our power to make sure that voters get final say on the privatization of the city’s most valuable asset," he said in a prepared statement. "The airport is not only an important revenue generator, it is a long term investment made by the city’s taxpayers. This is simply too important of a decision to be made without voter approval."

Burleigh said the group is submitting its proposed petition to the city's board of election commissioners this morning (as well as sending sample language to the board of aldermen). Once the petitions are approved for circulation, a process that can take a few weeks, its volunteers hopes to "take advantage" of summer festivals and events, as well as upcoming elections, to gather signatures from city voters.

Spencer welcomes the effort. "These are complementary actions," she says. "One way or another, we'll find a way to get public participation in deciding what happens to this public asset."

In recent weeks, critics of privatization have found plenty of ammo for their contention that the airport is for sale — and that the public's interest is not the top priority. The St. Louis Business Journal reported that Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed voted to move forward on hiring consultants to examine the privatization plan only after his campaign donors were added to the contract. The Business Journal also recently revealed that former Mayor Francis Slay had been hired by a Spanish firm seeking to lease the airport.

As the RFT detailed in a March cover story, Slay first kick-started the process of exploring privatization at the very end of his tenure as mayor.

To Spencer, the former mayor's involvement in both the public and private side of the deal raises serious ethical questions. "I think it is alarming to see the former mayor whose efforts started this process is now working on behalf of a private company that could benefit from it," she says. "The revolving door is certainly alarming."

She adds, "I hate to think the former mayor would benefit from something he worked on in office. Alarm bells are definitely ringing. But frankly alarm bells have been ringing from the very beginning here."

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