Charter forbids public vote on airport privatization, city’s lawyer says

CITY HALL – Does the City Charter allow the Board of Aldermen to ask the public to make a decision on a public issue? Apparently not, City Counselor Julian Bush said.

Bush told the Board of Aldermen’s Transportation and Commerce Committee on Thursday that a bill calling for a public vote on any plan to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport may violate the city’s charter.

The committee met to consider a bill sponsored by 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer that would require the vote before the city can rent, lease or otherwise transfer part or all of the control of the airport under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the Modernization and Reform Act.

Bush said the Board of Aldermen couldn’t transfer to the public the responsibility for making a decision on privatization. He said the city could hold a nonbinding referendum on the issue or could change the charter to allow such an election.

“The charter as it is today places with the Board of Aldermen whether or not the airport should be privatized,” Bush said. “The voters don’t have the authority to delegate outside the initiative and referendum process.”

Further, the matter may not get to voters if it’s challenged in court, Bush said.

Spencer walked out of the meeting after Bush spoke to the committee, and she was angry when reporters spoke to her afterward.

“You mean giving the voters the right to decide on an issue is unlawful delegation of powers?” Spencer asked. “The ordinance may not be binding, but that doesn’t mean that the city shouldn’t do it in good faith. There is nothing stopping the Board of Aldermen from letting the voters weigh in on any issue.”

Elected officials who ignore what the public has to say in such a vote might find it hard to get re-elected, Spencer said. She also said she supported a charter change.

One member of the Transportation and Commerce Committee who supports a public vote is 23rd Ward Alderman Joe Vaccaro. He added his name as a co-sponsor to Spencer’s bill but had significant reservations about it.

“It is a feel-good bill, but it does nothing,” Vaccaro said. “This does not guarantee that the voters will get the right to vote.”

Vaccaro spoke in favor of a charter change that would allow the public to make a decision.

Speaking to the committee, Spencer said there would be serious problems with privatizing the airport.

She noted that St. Louis gets nearly $7 million a year from the airport and that it is the only airport considering privatization. One privatization effort, Stewart International Airport, turned into a disaster. Reversing privatization would be expensive, she said.

The city can enhance and improve its airport without handing it over to somebody else, she said.

“All that beautiful land surrounding Lambert airport could be sold off,” Spencer said.

International air travel will double in the next 20 years, Spencer said. “St. Louis is uniquely conditioned to accommodate this enormous growth in international flights,” she said. Privatizing the airport would shortchange the process, she said.

One speaker from the public, Richard von Glahn of Missouri Jobs for Justice, said the loss of public control could have long-term consequences.

“This loss of control is simply not necessary,” he said.

City leaders are considering whether to turn the airport’s management and operations over to a private firm. The Board of Estimate and Apportionment has approved a consulting agreement with Moelis & Company, McKenna & Associates, Grow Missouri and a broad range of other advisers, naming them the city’s adviser team on the issue.

Grow Missouri is paying all costs and will be reimbursed only if the city reaches an agreement with a private manager.

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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