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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Veolia Water Withdraws From Contract with City of St. Louis

Posted By on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Taken at one recent Dump Veolia demonstration at city hall. - SUHAD KHATIB
  • Suhad Khatib
  • Taken at one recent Dump Veolia demonstration at city hall.

Almost a year after it became public that water-services manager Veolia won a potentially lucrative contract to work with the St. Louis Water Division, Mayor Francis Slay's office announced this morning that the French multinational company has withdrawn its proposal. This comes after months of protests, the politicization of the issue in the last mayoral campaign and, finally, the passage of board Bill 216 this morning, in which the St. Louis Board of Aldermen's Ways and Means Committee voted to strip funding for the first phase of Veolia's contract from the city budget.

"This went through an open, legal, competitive bid. It was open to the public from the very beginning," says Maggie Crane, Slay's spokeswoman. "Veolia was chosen as a contractor. Once there were concerns about what's going on halfway across the world, all the sudden it becomes a political hot potato. The whole issue was controlling the costs of the water department."

But many, including some aldermen and the activist group Dump Veolia, say that Slay's office attempted to push the bill through by circumventing the democratic process.

"We won!" read a tweet from the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, one of the lead organizations in the Dump Veolia coalition.

See also: French Firm, Veolia, Wins Consulting Contract with St. Louis Water Division

Before Daily RFT first broke news of the contract back in December, the $250,000 deal was on its way to a quiet approval from the Estimates and Apportionment committee, made up of Slay, Comptroller Darlene Green and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. Activists from the group Dump Veolia began attending meetings and pressuring Reed and Green to vote no on the deal. Dump Veolia represents a number of interests, including the labor concerns of water-division workers who feared cutbacks, the Palestine Solidarity Committee which objects to Veolia's involvement in services in Israel and Palestine, and environmental concerns. We unpacked all the issues -- including the water division's need to avoid rate hikes and make major infrastructure improvements -- in our feature story "Hosed" back in February.

Later, Slay formally put the contract on hold, the protest movement grew and the city agreed to public hearings on the issue. Those hearings, held this summer, involved hours of testimony from all sides of the issue, and did not seem to promise compromise.

Early this month, Comptroller Green received a letter from the city's attorney advising her that passage of Veolia's contract was no longer subject to E&A's approval and had instead been included as a line item in the city's 2014 budget. The letter instructed her to approve the deal as a part of her "ministerial duty," explaining that the aldermen's ways and means committee approved the expenditure.

As it turned out, several aldermen strongly disagreed with this assessment, including 6th Ward Alderman Christine Ingrassia, who released this statement:

I did not vote to approve a contract with Veolia and I can't imagine any other Aldermen believes that is what happened either. It is in the best interest of the City, at this point, that Comptroller Green obtain a separate legal opinion on this issue. The constituents I represent have been heard loud and clear on this issue. They do not want to do business with Veolia. The people of St. Louis deserve better.

Last week, Alderman Terry Kennedy proposed Board Bill 216 which would strip the $250,000 for Veolia out of the budget. That measure passed this morning by a vote of 5 to 2, but it was clear that the point was moot after Mary Ellen Ponder, Slay's deputy chief of staff, addressed the committee.

"Veolia Water, the firm that was legitimately selected per ordinance, to help improve the Water Division's level of efficiency, has decided our business is not worth it," she said. "Veolia will not go forward with the contract they were legitimately awarded. Frankly, they can't be blamed."

Reactions from activists, aldermen and Slay supporters ran the gamut. Click through to view some from social media.

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