ST. LOUIS • Top city officials on Wednesday approved hiring a team of outside consultants to help decide whether to lease St. Louis’ airport to a private operator.

The vote by the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment was 2-1, with Mayor Lyda Krewson and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed in favor of the advisory contract and Comptroller Darlene Green against.

The decision represents one of the first major steps in an effort that has already proved polarizing, with proponents seeing it as a chance for St. Louis to make money and be an innovator, and critics questioning transparency, conflicts of interest and the need for a public-private partnership at all, given the recent growth at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Former Mayor Francis Slay initiated the privatization effort just weeks before leaving office in early 2017, with the help of St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield, whose nonprofit, Grow Missouri Inc., paid for the city’s application to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It’s been more than a year since the FAA approved the city’s application. It’s taken this long to hire an advisory team and negotiate a contract for their services.

Krewson, who inherited the effort when she assumed office last year, has said repeatedly that looking into the idea doesn’t guarantee St. Louis will go through with it.

“We owe it to ourselves to consider what could be a very positive turning point for the future of our airport,” Krewson said. “We worked to make sure the team we put together has the expertise to protect the public’s interest as we explore this opportunity.”

Reed, whose opposition kept the Board of Estimate and Apportionment from voting on the contract last month, said changes to the structure and function of a working group laid out in the contract were among the reasons for his yes vote this week.

But if a final lease agreement isn’t “transformative” for the city, he won’t support it, Reed said.

Under the contract, representatives from the offices of Krewson, Reed and Green, along with the city’s budget director, airport director, and chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee, will vote on various decisions throughout the process. In the case of a tie, the vote goes back to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

The group’s ability to weigh in at different stages adds checks and balances to the process, Reed said.

The primary firms advising the city will be McKenna & Associates LLC, Moelis & Co. LLC and the Sinquefield-affiliated Grow Missouri Inc. — the last of which is a poison pill for some city officials who feel the process has been tainted. Grow Missouri is paying for all advisory fees and will only be reimbursed for them, as well as for the cost of the initial application, if a deal goes through.

20th Ward Alderman Cara Spencer was among 18 aldermen who signed a letter earlier this year imploring Krewson, Reed and Green to start the process over again and pick new consultants. After not being allowed to speak at Wednesday’s meeting, Spencer said on Twitter that she was “disgusted with the gross conflicts of interest” in the contract.

Green said her opposition stemmed more from the airport’s strong financial position, citing 31 straight months of passenger growth and two credit rating upgrades.

“Our airport is an asset for the city, and a private entity beholden to shareowners, not consumers, would put bottom-line profit over public service,” Green said. “To abandon the long and successful history of Lambert as a municipal airport through this politically expedient process is wrong.”

Green also argued that any final decision to lease the airport must be approved by voters. Krewson said that it’s not yet clear whether there will be a public vote at the end of an exploration process that could take up to three years.

Now that the team of advisers is in place, they will issue a request for qualifications from firms that want to operate the airport.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents current janitorial workers at Lambert, is opposed to the firm and has rallied against the contract at recent meetings. Reed voted against it on Wednesday, and Green abstained.

In the meantime, cleaning services at the airport are handled under an emergency contract. Krewson said that means the city is out an extra $50,000 a month to the stand-in provider, or $600,000 a year.





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