NIMBY-ism isn’t always about angry crowds and frightened neighbors. Sometimes, it’s not focused on a physical space at all. The dynamics are the same — an impassioned minority fighting to preserve the status quo — but the battle is over intangibles like tax breaks, job creation, or providing services. What makes NIMBY-ism so dangerous is when this determination to stop any change comes at the expense of the wider community.
This is what has developed in Fresno, Calif., where a dispute between the municipal government and a local union is drawing unprecedented attention to the town’s solid waste plan. Late last year, the mayor of Fresno, Ashley Swearengin, had pushed a plan to privatize the city’s waste disposal service through the City Council. Citing a need for cost savings, the city voted on December 20 to utilize the services of Mid Valley Disposal, a California firm that already served various communities in Fresno County. The deal would have brought in $2.5 million in franchise fees and a $1.5 million signing bonus — significant incentives for a city trying to make ends meet.
The agreement has faced significant hurdles, however. Public sector unions, whose workers are employed by the current, city-run solid waste plan, came out in force to oppose the plan. After delivering a crowd of opponents to the vote, which resulted in only a narrow 4-3 victory for the privatization side, the union and its allies have engaged in a petition drive to put the new plan up for a vote. Last month they turned in more than 40,000 signatures, 27,000 of which were verified by county election officials. That was more than enough to force the privatization plan to be placed on the ballot before it could be implemented.
The petition placed the City Council in a difficult position. They could either move forward with a costly special election (approximately $1 million) in June that had no guarantee of success, or they could vote to rescind their original decision and stick with the city-run waste disposal service. After heated debate, and with encouragement from the mayor, they voted 5-2 to proceed with a special election in June, the cost of which will likely wipe out two-thirds of the signing bonus with Mid Valley. Assuming, of course, that voters actually vote yes.
The events in Fresno are unusual, but this isn’t the first time labor has pushed for preferential treatment from a city. This case has drawn enough attention, though, that both unions and municipal governments are looking at it as a barometer of whether the public will support its elected officials in a standoff against the Teamsters. If they vote down the new solid waste plan, unions across the state will be encouraged to circumvent similar privatization plans as they come up — and taxpayers will be left paying higher rates.
For municipal officials it must be sobering to see a difficult decision, made in the best interests of the city, subjected to second-guessing by a special interest group. But there’s no reason this referendum has to end badly. The city of Fresno can and should run a campaign in support of the referendum. It can succeed if they treat it like a genuine political campaign: define the message, identify likely voters and motivate them to get to the polls. We’ve previously written about the reasons referendums fail or succeed and this is a great time to put those lessons into action.
More broadly, though, this campaign can be an opportunity for Mid Valley Disposal to introduce itself to the city it hopes to serve. Done right, the firm can educate residents about who they are, what they hope to do for residents, and why they’re the right ones for the job. That will help them to do more than win the vote in June; it will set the stage for a productive relationship with Fresno for years to come.