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Spencer, transportation committee clash on tabling airport privatization vote bill

CITY HALL – Depending on who is talking, action by an aldermanic committee last week could either advance proposals to vote on any plan to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport, or it could scuttle it.

Differences arose in a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Transportation and Committee on Thursday.

A chief issue was 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer’s bill to require a city-wide vote to approve any proposal aimed at privatizing the airport, whether by renting, leasing or transferring control of the airport.

After discussing the possibility of hearing from people or governments outside of St. Louis, committee members talked about tabling those and other bills Spencer has on the subject while they get more information.

Members ended the discussion by voting 5-0 to table the bill requiring the public vote. It takes a 2/3 vote to bring a matter back from being tabled.

Spencer balked at this suggestion.

“Putting them on the side is an amenable path forward, but tabling them really says to the public that we really don’t want to hear these right now,” Spencer said. “It would be the first time I would be aware of that happening in my entire five years [as an alderman].”

But 16th Ward Alderman and committee member Tom Oldenburg said tabling preserved the bills.

“In essence, it doesn’t kill them,” Oldenburg said. “It allows this committee to do this very important work in coming out of committee with consensus on the right public engagement path.”

This would enable the committee to be more united on the idea of getting a public vote, Oldenburg said.

Throughout the whole discussion, committee members spoke in support of a public vote.

Conversation about tabling started after committee member Jeffrey Boyd, 22nd Ward alderman, read media accounts about how leaders in St. Louis and St. Charles counties said they wanted a voice on the question of privatizing the airport, possibly through a vote.

“I’m requesting that they come before the committee if they’re really truly interested in the process,” Boyd said.

Another committee member, 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro, quipped, “While we’re asking them, why don’t we ask them to help us pay for the vote?”

Spencer reacted positively to getting comments from others. 

“I would welcome that conversation, and I would welcome our regional leaders to to come before and ask questions and be a part of the process,” Spencer said. “I would respectfully defer my bills until we have a more regional conversation about it.”

Earlier in her presentation, Spencer said it would be possible to have a partial privatization, such as for the management or the landscaping. 

“We are asking, ‘Should we privatize our airport?,’ but this is the wrong question,” she argued. “We should not be asking, ‘Can we make a quick buck for our city?,’ but ‘How can our region’s assets be used to maximize the growth of our region’s economy?,’” Spencer said. “Putting this question before the general public opens up this process to public discourse that we haven’t seen thus far.”

Spencer also said there was a possibility that the vote her bill sought might be nonbinding. She said that would be all right and still would foster public engagement.

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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