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Controversial Veolia Contract Comes Under New Scrutiny

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
Some of the signs protestors held outside the Board of Aldermen on October 18, 2013.

Opponents of a proposed $250,000 consulting contract between the city of St. Louis water department and the French utility company Veolia call the latest move in the saga by Mayor Francis Slay “political chicanery."

A coalition of groups is critical of the company's environmental and human rights records. The contract has been delayed at the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment for months because of opposition from comptroller Darlene Green and aldermanic president Lewis Reed. (Slay is the committee's third member.) But earlier this month, the city attorney issued an opinion saying approval by the board wasn't needed because the contract had gone through the normal budget process.

Here's the reasoning from attorney Patricia Hageman:

  1. In 2012, a selection committee selected Veolia to look at cost-reduction measures for the water department. Each member of E&A appointed someone to serve on that committee.
  2. The water department submitted a form to the budget office requesting $250,000 for an outside consulting contractor in the fiscal year 2014 budget.
  3. E&A, along with the Ways and Means committee of the Board of Aldermen, held hearings on the water department's budget, along with those of every other city department. In those hearings, water commissioner Curt Skouby clearly stated that the $250,000 was for a contract with Veolia. 
  4. Even with that knowledge, E&A and the Board of Aldermen approved the budget for the current fiscal year.

The charter, Hageman says, only requires E&A approval of contracts in certain situations - and this is not one of them.
"It is my opinion that all of the requisite approvals have already been obtained and that you, as comptroller, have a ministerial duty to sign the enclosed Contract," the letter concludes.

Sierra Club volunteer Caroline Pufaltsays the mayor’s move “appalled” her.

"We don’t know why the mayor wants this contract so bad," she said. "He apparently wants it so badly that he will take this bullying tactic and insult the board, misuse a public official,  Darlene Green trying to fulfill her duties."

The mayor's office disputes the characterization, with director of operations Eddie Roth calling it a misunderstanding of how City Hall works.

"You put together a budget proposal, you put it before the board, the Ways and Means committee hashes it out, and they very specifically hashed this out," he said. "Aldermen French inquired directly to the director of the water division saying, 'is this $250,000 for the Veolia contract?' 'Yes it is.'”

A spokeswoman for Green says the comptroller will not sign the contract in its current form, and that any changes would have to go through E&A, regardless of the legal opinion.

Aldermanic president Lewis Reed is asking for legislative hearings into the contract.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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