It’s a news clip we’ve all seen a thousand times before. A mob of angry citizens is arrayed in front of a politician, incensed over a plan to place a waste transfer station in their neighborhood. A spokesperson for the group reels off a half-question, half-accusation that culminates in a demand to “explain your rationale for your tenacious support for building this transfer station, which clearly will have a horrible impact on this community.” The crowd cheers, and the politician, wilting under the pressure, prepares the inevitable backtrack.
Except that’s not how this clip ends. The politician in question is Christine Quinn, the Speaker of the City Council for New York City and frontrunner in the race to succeed Mayor Bloomberg at City Hall, and in true New York style, she gave as good as she got. Speaker Quinn delivered a passionate response to the NIMBY crowd that did not shy away from her support for the transfer station. Her remarks were all the more remarkable because she was speaking at a candidates’ forum, where she was on a stage with her rivals in the race for mayor of New York City. Those competitors had all taken the easy way out and either opposed or refused to take a stand on the facility.
The waste transfer station is part of a comprehensive citywide waste plan, which calls for a transfer point in the Upper East Side of Manhattan at a neighborhood focal point known as the Asphalt Green. The site is so unusual and so controversial because it’s not where heavy industry typically goes. Instead of being low-income or remote, the Asphalt Green area is a well-to-do neighborhood on prime Manhattan real estate. Areas like this aren’t supposed to have to deal with industrial facilities -- and that’s kind of the point, Speaker Quinn argued.
“The underlying core of this plan is a move towards boroughs taking more responsibility for their own garbage and moving away from the days that all sanitation related uses only went into lower income neighborhoods,” Quinn argued.
To accentuate this point, Quinn went on to note that she had supported a similar facility in her own district. She also explained how the new waste transfer station would also help solve some of the truck traffic and waste flow problems that had increasingly plagued the city in recent years. When a crowd member shouted out, don’t expect us to vote for you, Baby,” she had a simple response: “That’s fine.”
Christine Quinn’s forceful defense of a very unpopular decision is noteworthy not only for its substance but for its tone. She stood her ground and respectfully but firmly pointed out some uncomfortable truths to the audience about the types of communities that usually bear the burden of hosting waste facilities. In doing so, she demonstrated that politicians need not be slaves to politics, and that there is still a role for facts and substance in the debate over public policy and the waste industry.
This column usually makes the point that elected officials are pliable creatures, easily influenced by the politics of the moment, and that winning the political battle is usually the best way to win the permit. And in most cases, that’s still true. But you can’t let the timid 98 percent of politicians give the bold 2 percent a bad name.
Sometimes a developer may find himself allied with that rarest of beasts: a politician willing to do the right thing in spite of public opinion. When that occurs, it’s important to recognize what issues make that official tick and then get to work addressing them. In Speaker Quinn’s case, it is apparent that a concern for social justice and the equitable treatment of all portions of the city is an issue near and dear to her heart. The backers of this facility gave her the chance to make progress on this issue, and she stepped up. The result is a city better able to handle its waste stream, but also one where the responsibility for waste disposal is more equitably distributed.