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Economy & Business

Attorneys Backing Airport Privatization Petition Argue It Must Move Forward

The city's Ways and Means committee approved a bill that would put the issue of privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport before voters in November. The bill must now be approved by the full Board of Aldermen.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Voters are to consider a petition initiative in November on St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. July 14th, with legal opinion from lawyers supporting St. Louis Rising

Leaders behind a petition effort to put airport privatization on the ballot held a press conference Tuesday disputing a recent legal opinion questioning its validity.

Lawyers supporting the petition issued an opinion on the matter in a letter Monday evening to Al Bond and Adolphus Pruitt, who are spearheading the effort.

The lawyers argue, among other things, that the state constitution allows St. Louis to change its charter through a citizen-led petition effort as long as it gains enough signatures. Because election commissioners certified those signatures earlier this month, they believe a court would rule the petition be placed on the November ballot.

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Original story from July 13, 2020:

An attorney for the city of St. Louis is questioning whether a proposal to lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport belongs on November's ballot.

The Board of Election Commissioners ruled on July 2 that the group pushing the proposal, St. Louis Rising, collected enough valid signatures. But City Counselor Julian Bush said the city's charter can't be amended in the way that’s being proposed.

He argued in a letter released Monday that an ordinance submitting the charter amendment needed to be adopted first. But because the petition is written as a charter amendment, Bush doesn’t advise it move forward.

“This is not allowable under the [state] Constitution, and it certainly is not allowable under the City Charter,” he wrote in an opinion to Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, who asked him to weigh in.

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His letter also states that if the petition had been written as an ordinance, it would require two public votes — the first to pass the ordinance and the second to pass the charter amendment. The Board of Aldermen could cut out the need for the first vote by passing the ordinance itself.

But Bush said that according to the charter, that’s not the way things should play out now.

“In this instance, the proposal should not be submitted to the voters twice, or once, or at all,” Bush wrote.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP and leader of the petition effort along with the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, said Bush’s opinion doesn’t make sense.

“I think his conclusions are all over the place, and I think it leaves as many questions as it does answers,” he said, adding that he’s seeking the opinion of his lawyers.

One of those lawyers, Elkin Kistner of the Bick & Kistner firm, sent Pruitt a letter Friday outlining his legal opinions on the matter.

Kistner represents Rebuild St. Louis — an organization supporting St. Louis Rising.

“The idea that an initiative petition-driven amendment to that charter requires two elections has no basis in law and is contrary to the plain language of the charter,” he wrote. He added that the idea that the charter amendment petition conflicts with the charter as written is “nonsensical.” 

In his private practice, Kistner focuses on local government law issues. He served as an assistant city counselor for St. Louis between 1986 and 1990.

Three other former city counselors — James Wilson, Thomas Ray and Edward Hanlon — submitted their opinions on the matter earlier this month, aligning with Bush’s conclusions.

At the same time, Spencer said she doesn’t see why the board needs to make a quick decision on a separate but similar proposal aiming to put airport privatization on the ballot. The board may vote Tuesday on final passage of that proposal, which is sponsored by President Lewis Reed.

“I think this shows the haste with which this whole proposal was put together,” Spencer said. “This undermines other risks associated with moving forward with a proposal of this magnitude.” 

Spencer, a longtime opponent of privatization, is running for St. Louis mayor on the issue, among others.

Taken 7-13-20
Credit Corinne Ruff | St. Louis Public Radio
Lew Moye, president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, expresses his concerns about how airport privatization could hurt workers during a press conference Monday at Kiener Plaza.

More unions join privatization opposition

Several union groups announced their opposition to airport privatization on Monday, during a press conference at Kiener Plaza in downtown St. Louis.

The event included Unite Here Local 74, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, American Federation of Teachers Local 420, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the American Postal Workers Union St. Louis Gateway District and Communications Workers of America Locals 6300 and 6355. 

Together with SEIU Local 1, which previously announced its opposition, the labor groups represent more than 14,000 workers across the region.

Kevin McNatt, president of Unite Here Local 74, represents about 450 food and beverage workers at Lambert. McNatt said only about 45 are currently working, as the airport is operating on a limited capacity due to the pandemic.

“Some of those jobs aren’t coming back. And now they’re hearing this, in the midst of trying to run this thing through. They’re scared,” he said. “We’re trying to keep their jobs for them right now. This is not a good time — I don't think ever is to privatize — but god, you shouldn’t be doing this now.”

McNatt worries that provisions included in the petition and Reed’s proposal regarding the protection of collective bargaining agreements won’t help unions negotiate future contracts.

Lew Moye, president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, also spoke against leasing Lambert.

“Privatization hurts the working people — lowering wages, benefits, standards — which holds our community back,” he said. “Privatization is just more empty promises for north St. Louis.”

But some unions see airport privatization as an opportunity for more jobs. The Carpenters Union is helping lead the petition, and the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 655 has voiced its support.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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