Garbage Debate

May 19, 2011

It all ended so anti-climatically. A day’s worth of debate and bluster, bare knuckles and bared teeth. A flurry of motions, amendments and barely contained confusion, wrapping up in a couple, three quick votes. Then a recess was called, an in camera session declared, spectators, many clad in union supportive orange, wandered from the council chambers toward the elevators, surprised to learn that it was all done, the deal sealed.

Toronto now has private garbage collection, west of Yonge Street to Etobicokie, from Steels down to the lakefront. Sort of. Rather, a call to tender out trash collection in the city’s District 2 has been approved by council. The winning bid will then be brought back, further debated and voted on, subject to a series of stipulations and benchmarks crafted at Tuesday night’s council meeting to help ensure that the savings we have been guaranteed will be had.

Let’s call it step 1 toward the full implementation of Mayor Ford’s campaign pledge to privatize garbage collection citywide, thereby fulfilling his mandate of respecting the taxpayers and saving them x amount of dollars. (x being a fluid, evasive number dependent on who was touting it and for what purposes but always variable.) It wasn’t the slam dunk many of the mayor’s previous initiatives were and much of the drama had been bled from it when, in the face of some stiff opposition to an earlier plan to have council give carte blanche to the Bid Committee to sign off on any deal, Team Ford appeared to have caved to council’s will. The real battle is set to happen when the selected bid comes before council for its approval.

Of special note is the role played by the so-called mushy middle in tempering the mayor’s desired stampede to full on privatization. The two Joshes along with Ana Bailão, new councillors all, managed to push through amendments that, in theory at least, establish more rigorous oversight when the bid comes back to council for final approval. In doing so, they delivered a few nice body shots to the mayor, proving that he is not invincible and his grip on the majority of council members is not ironclad.

Yet… yet… not meaning to diminish their achievements, defeating the mayor in some important votes on such a high profile item that he so identifies with is nothing to sneeze at, but it all felt so unnecessary. I know Councillor Josh Matlow is a big proponent of ‘process’, of not adhering to simple ideology in determining how decisions are made. It just seemed to me that the process should’ve been simpler. There were two sides to the debate. Those favouring privatized waste collection and those not. (Or in Mayor Ford’s more nuanced view, those respecting taxpayers versus tax-and-spend socialists.) Each presents and makes their respective cases, the pros and cons discussed and deliberated thoroughly and thoughtfully, leading to a majority decision. That’s council process.

If the mayor and his forces want to privatize garbage collection, all they have to do is to prove that it will save money and improve the service we already have. Simply put, they couldn’t do it. Their numbers are suspect and all they had for improved service was to point out that in Etobicoke where collection has been fully private since the mid-90s, they get no more complaints than in the rest of the city.

No more?! That isn’t an improvement. That’s a wash. And without being able to show that privatizing will actually respect the taxpayers and save them money, all they had to go with was guaranteeing there’d be no more strikes.

And that’s not even guaranteed. There’s no way the city can include a no-strike clause in any contract it signs with a private firm. City staff admitted as much on Tuesday. All that is possible is a decreased likelihood of future strikes because non-union workers don’t tend to go on strike and, from the arguments I heard, private waste collection is usually performed by non-unionized workers. Workers working for less money and with less benefits which is where the savings for the taxpayers are supposed to come from.

But that’s really all the rabid pro-privatizers had to go on, and they went with it with all the shrill, hectoring vehemence they could muster. Between Councillor Mammoliti and Speaker Nunziata, they painted a veritable Mad Max of garbage collection up in their York wards. Trash ridden streets, broken and busted bins, anti-social, unionista collectors putting the fear into old ladies and keeping them cowering in their houses, taking cover weekly, waiting until the garbage trucks passed to re-emerge out in the daylight to clean up the mess left behind.

All anecdotal and unlike anything I’ve ever seen with garbage pickup outside of my house. More to the point, every horror story councillors Mammoliti and Nunziata used to fire up their supporters must be matched by similar tales of woe in Etobicoke because as Chair of Public Works and Infrastructure, Denzil Minnan-Wong, and city staffed told council repeatedly, complaint levels on both sides of the fence are roughly the same. Privatization has not proven to be an ingredient for increased public satisfaction.

In terms of process, the anti-privatization argument at Tuesday’s council meeting won the day if for no other reason than their opponents’ case was flabby, unproven and based almost exclusively on hearsay and unbridled emotion demanding vengeance on those who caused us so much discomfort and heartache for nearly 40 days during the summer of 2009. On the face of it, the vote should’ve been one-sided in the other direction that it ultimately went. That is, if councillors had left their concerns of being smeared as free spending socialists and enemies of taxpayers back in their offices.

All was not lost. If some of the amendments that managed to get out from under Councillor Mammoliti’s down turned thumb are adhered to as the debate moves forward, and the numbers are actually explained and examined honestly and without bias, the move towards privatization may not yet be a done deal. Of course, that’s predicated on the assumption that the councillors still sitting on the fence of the privatization issue really are waiting for all the facts to fully emerge. That’s something I’m not convinced of.

trashily submitted by Cityslikr