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Monday, October 8, 2018

If St. Louis Is Serious About Airport Privatization, We Deserve Accurate Info — and a Vote

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2018 at 8:57 AM

Last week, the Board of Aldermen held a public hearing on a bill involving airport privatization. And while everyone involved claimed to be interested in getting public input, some members of the Board of Aldermen at the meeting appeared to show little enthusiasm for the idea of giving the taxpayers a vote on any eventual deal (others seemed to be truly supportive of a public vote). Unfortunately, as the meeting progressed into the public comment portion, some members seemed to go out of their way to dismiss residents’ valid concerns — and sometimes with inaccurate information.

At issue was Board Bill 93, proposed by Alderwoman Cara Spencer, which would require any privatization plan to go before voters. One after another, city voters approached the microphone and asked that the committee send the bill to a full floor vote, only to be told by Transportation and Commerce Chair Alderwoman Marlene Davis that they should keep informed by regularly checking a website set up by Rex Sinquefield’s consultants at Grow Missouri. (For the purposes of this consulting contract, the Sinquefield-backed group is working under the name FLY314.) For anyone who believes the public deserves both a vote and accurate information about what’s going on, Davis’ suggestion was confusing at best. After all, FLY314 seems determined to push a deal through, and they have not acted in an impartial manner.

The grassroots organization I work with, St. Louis: Not for Sale, has been gathering signatures in hopes of accomplishing the same thing as Board Bill 93: Requiring that voters get a say in what happens to the city’s most valuable publicly owned asset. Yet a handful of members of the Board of Aldermen continue to grouse about our name, as the privatization plans entail a very long-term lease, rather than sale of the airport. In doing so, they entirely ignore the fact that we are a group that opposes all attempts to privatize the city’s major assets and services. We are not only here to protect the airport, but are preparing to resist privatization of the Refuse Department and other city services. As such, we decided upon a name that could cover numerous future campaigns.

And if you want to split hairs about language choices, the aldermen criticizing us last week offered no similar concerns about FLY314. That’s even though the literature being distributed by FLY314 fails to use the word privatization a single time. Not once. Instead, voters are being told about an “investment partnership” and many other innovative ways of describing privatization without actually saying the word. While criticizing a group of volunteers that will be working on numerous issues, these aldermen ignore the fact that the city’s consultants are going out of the way to avoid even the mention of privatization in their single-issue literature. Even if they thought their critique of our branding decision was truly valid, any moral high ground went out the window the moment that literature was approved for circulation.

When it came my turn to speak, I raised this point about the literature and requested that the polling done to inform FLY314’s voter outreach efforts be made public. The committee chair responded that the literature’s “talking points” were pulled straight from the city’s original application to the FAA, and were not informed by polling. No explanation was given as to why the literature doesn’t include the word “privatization.” Or even “private” for that matter. The idea that we should be entitled to see this polling did not figure into her response.

Nor did her response answer my question about releasing the polling. The application to the FAA is a long document and while most of the talking points can be found within, there are dozens of other things in the application the consultants could have highlighted, but didn’t. Why not the proposed increases in parking fees? Why no mention of MetroLink and NGA, when the application prominently features them as the projects on which the city intends to use the money? What is and isn’t being pitched at doors was carefully chosen by FLY314.

In fact, we can be almost certain that FLY314’s game plan is based on polling that we are on the hook to pay for, if they are successful in railroading the privatization process through to completion. How? According to the videos and transcripts posted of the city working group’s August 7 meeting, consultants repeatedly talked about “benchmark polling” being done on privatization efforts and that the results would drive their work going forward. They also mentioned additional focus groups being conducted. While I guess it is possible that the polling wasn’t used to determine verbiage, why wouldn’t the polling results and methodology still be made available to the public? Maybe because FLY314 doesn’t want to release the results? I think that most reasonable adults would venture that as a fair guess.

And some of us audience members were later confused by the chair’s suggestion that we shouldn’t have a public vote because the FAA might use it as a pretext to reject any lease deal. Whether or not the FAA would accept an eventual deal has nothing to do with whether taxpayers should be allowed a vote on whether a deal is worth taking. This is an especially curious concern in light of the fact that the transcripts of the same August 7 privatization working group meeting that mentioned the polling also clearly state that the consultants’ conversations with the federal government lead them to believe that the Trump administration and the FAA are “keen to see some successful use of this program.”

Later, another audience member was told not to worry about further privatization of airport security, as TSA is a federal agency and the jobs can’t be contracted. This would be news to our friends in Kansas City, who participate in the TSA Screening Partnership Program. This program is intended to privatize TSA screening operations and has been rolled out at 22 airports. Yet not a word about it was mentioned it at the hearing.

By the end of the meeting, many in the audience were confused by the proceedings. Those I spoke to say they left the hearing with less, not more, accurate information.

In all fairness, some aldermen may not be aware of everything discussed at that August 7 meeting. (While minutes show the chair was listed as present, it is also entirely reasonable that she has forgotten some details of a meeting from two months ago.) It is also important to note that almost all responses to resident questions came from Alderwoman Davis because the meeting was formatted so that only the chair was responding to the audience. While the other aldermen asked questions of Spencer, the bill’s primary sponsor, they refrained from responding to resident questions in order to allow time for maximum public comment. Unfortunately, this good intention led to a situation where incorrect information was not corrected or clarified. The unfortunate end result was that the public was left without an easy way to get accurate information, even at a city hearing.

Thus lies the problem in allowing the city to complete this project without a public vote: we’ve never been given a clear picture of what is at stake and what the city is doing to complete this deal. Any ability to trust those guiding the journey was long ago poisoned by a process so unethical that major firms refused to apply under the “unique” conditions sought by the city. The selection process was widely panned for being rigged to ensure the selection of Sinquefield’s allies.

It is also important to remember that we were initially promised a public vote when the application was filed with the FAA. At the time, we were told that the city would have to change its charter, requiring a supermajority of city voters. Somehow, that’s gone out the window. In fact, both Board Bill 93 and the ordinance for which we are petitioning would only require a simple majority, a lower bar than what the public was initially promised.

At the end of the meeting, Alderwoman Davis expressed her hope that the public and our local government could heal the mistrust that has formed. This is a hope we share. Unfortunately, this process has already proven supremely flawed. The quickest way to begin working toward that shared goal would be to move forward by taking by these two simple steps: The first step will be to publicly release the polling and any other work products produced by Grow Missouri/FLY314 and mentioned in working group meetings. Any attempts to keep this and other information private are beyond acceptable and violate the promises of transparency that have been repeatedly made to the public. The second step would be to take action to heed the public’s demand to secure the ballot. We would hope that the members of the Board of Aldermen will listen to their constituents and approve Board Bill 93.

While we hope that the Board will simply send the question to the ballot, we are prepared to spend the next year organizing around our petition if need be. We are on pace to reach our goals and the public is clearly eager for the once-promised public vote. Why? Because only with a public vote will citizens feel that they have been given an opportunity to properly evaluate and accept any potential deal to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Unless privatization can win at the ballot, St. Louisans will never accept any deal forged by this flawed process as legitimate. We paid to build it. We deserve a vote.

Glenn Burleigh is a long-time progressive activist in south St. Louis. He lives in the Marine Villa neighborhood and volunteers with Team TIF and St. Louis: Not For Sale. Note: There will be another public hearing on Board Bill 93 on October 13 and one more on October 15.

The RFT welcomes concise essays on topics of local interest. Contact [email protected] if you've got something to say.

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