By Michael D. Evans
Opponents of Mayor Ashley Swearingen’s plan to privatize residential sanitation service, which had been approved by the outgoing Fresno City Council in December 2012, gathered almost 40,000 signatures from voters in the City of Fresno opposed to the privatization. After the signatures were checked by the Fresno County Registrar’s Office, the petitioners had 27,589 valid signatures—a good 20% more than the minimum required to force a revisit of the vote by the City Council or a referendum on the measure.
The successful petition drive left the City Council with two options: vote to rescind the original motion or let the measure go to a public referendum. At press time, that outcome had not yet been determined. However, from the public statements of Council members, it appeared that there were not enough votes to rescind the motion thereby ensuring a referendum. That referendum could occur as early as 88 days after that decision.
The success of the petition drive is unprecedented. Almost 40,000 signatures were gathered in about three weeks—in Fresno! The organizational efforts of the drive’s leadership—Dee Barnes, president of the Fresno City Employees Association, and Marina Magdaleno, business director of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 39—were complemented by a diverse collection of community groups, labor organizations and citizens just angry at the city trying to “fix” something that’s not broken (i.e., city-run residential sanitation service).
The city’s fiscal crisis is real; no one is disputing that. However, privatization of any part of city government is not a solution. The vilification of labor is a smokescreen. The mayor and the city’s leadership need to make sufficient information available so that the public can weigh in with possible solutions. During the signature-gathering for the petition drive, a common theme in the community was that people just don’t believe the mayor is forthcoming with all the facts.
The mayor and the city manager continue to perpetuate the fiction that privatization is the only way to solve our fiscal crisis. But what we can say with certainty is that city employees are not the problem. There is, however, a desperate need for an open and transparent discussion of our city’s fiscal woes. At a minimum, every City Council member should be given access to any and all information that would assist them in proposing solutions.
Even better would be to make this information available to the public and to establish a citizens’ advisory committee to identify solutions. Such a committee should be reflective of our community and tasked with improving our entire city. But it must not be another disaster like the Charter Review Commission, an all-male, almost entirely White committee that clearly was designed to serve the power elite of the city.
If the repeal of the effort to privatize residential sanitation service goes to the ballot, as appears imminent, there will be much work ahead. The mayor and Mid-Valley Disposal (the beneficiary of the city’s privatization measure) will put forward an aggressive, well-financed, misleading and, given past experience, negative campaign. It will take a strong grassroots coalition to ensure repeal.
The overwhelming success of the petition drive and the margin of failure in the city for Measure O, the county initiative on the November 2012 ballot to make privatization easier, show that the people have already spoken. Privatization is not a solution and is not welcome in Fresno County. Let’s put boots to the ground to turn back these privatization efforts for good.
And, finally, we need to start treating our city employees with the respect that they deserve.
Michael D. Evans is a political activist, editor and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.