ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Located near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the city of St. Louis has long been proud of its municipal water supply. Mayor Francis Slay and other local boosters continue to tout a 2007 designation by the U.S. Conference of Mayors as the home of America's best tasting city water.
It's also an expensive operation, with key infrastructure nearly a century old in need of repair, water-hungry corporate clients such as Anheuser-Busch and a succession of recent rate hikes that have consumers on edge. That's why Slay and other city officials want to hire Veolia Water North America as a consultant, under a four-month, $250,000 contract, to bring cost-cutting efficiencies to the city water division.
Opponents fear more dire consequences. A coalition of local activist groups known collectively as St. Louis Dump Veolia contends the company has a spotty environmental record and favors privatization of public water systems. On Friday, several dozen rallied at City Hall, calling for the city's Board of Aldermen to more closely scrutinize the deal and asking Comptroller Darlene Green -- whom Slay has directed to sign the contract -- to hold off.
"The water department is not in a financial crisis, contrary to what Mayor Slay is saying," said protest organizer Colleen Kelly, a homeless shelter manager. "And in spite of all this citizen outrage, Mayor Slay is circumventing the democratic process."
Two Chicago-based spokesmen for the company did not immediately respond to several phone calls and email requests for comment.
Slay previously sought approval of the contract from the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment, a three-member panel on which he serves along with Green and Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed.
After the board demurred, the city attorney advised Green that she has a "ministerial duty" to sign the contract, since the board on which she and Slay sit had already approved the water division's budget, as had the Board of Aldermen. The budget included $1.3 million for unspecified professional services.
Green was not in her office Friday, but deputy comptroller John Zakibe said his boss was exploring her legal options, both within in her department and through consultations with an outside lawyer.
Reed -- who lost to Slay in a March Democratic mayoral primary election -- issued a statement Friday calling for public hearings on the water contract in order to "protect the public against collusion or fraud, and to intervene when established processes may have been circumvented."
Eddie Roth, the mayor's director of operations, said the city has no plans to turn over its municipal water system to private owners or operators, and is legally prohibited from doing so under the city charter.
"We're seeking consulting advice," he said of the proposed contract. "It's advice only. We have no obligation to follow that advice. There is not now, nor has there ever been, any intent to sell, relinquish control or outsource anything related to our water division."
Roth added that the mayor's office won't legally challenge Green if the comptroller decides against inking the Veolia contract.
"If the comptroller is not willing to sign it, then the contract is dead," he said. "There's nothing further we can do."