(Left to right) Steve Paikin moderates a garbage privatization debate between Hugh Mackenzie and Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.
Last night, Councillor and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives research associate Hugh Mackenzie squared off in a debate over the proposed privatization of garbage collection from Yonge Street west to the Humber River.
The winner? A tie between…moderator Steve Paikin and Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s). The friendly face of TVO’s The Agenda and the councillor who put the night together were the clear favourites among the crowd as they were all kicked out of the North Toronto Collegiate Institute auditorium by the cleaning crew around 10 p.m. At least three separate individuals—including Matlow—declared Paikin’s humour and ability to temper some heated and long-winded residents among the night’s highlights, while Matlow himself couldn’t walk three feet without someone thanking him whole-heartedly for hosting such an important meeting.
However, what wasn’t so clear was who made the most convincing case for the future of garbage collection in the western part of the city.
On April 26, the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee voted in favour of privatizing garbage collection west of Yonge Street after hours of deputations from citizens and City workers opposed to the plan.
“It answered some questions for me and, frankly, left me with more questions than I came in here with,” Matlow said after the town hall. The rookie councillor remains undecided on whether or not he will vote to support the Ford-favoured initiative that would contract out some of the City’s garbage collection to the private sector in a lucrative $250 million deal. Ford, and others who back the plan, say it will save taxpayers $8 million a year, though it will likely result in axing 300 temporary City workers.
“I don’t get a sense that there’s been a concerted effort,” said Ward 22 resident Dave Thomas, about what he sees as the City’s underdeveloped plan for privatization. However, the self-described capitalist didn’t feel like Mackenzie’s arguments held much weight either.
“It was kind of like a squabbling family,” Annex-dweller Derek Smith said, noting that perhaps too much of the night’s conversation concentrated on past events, rather than looking forward.
A City worker questions Councillor Denzil Mennan-Wong about the effects of privatizing garbage collection.
The debate between private sector–naysayer Mackenzie and Minnan-Wong, the pro-privatization chair of the City’s public works committee, failed to provide any new insight into the question of whether scrapping public garbage collection will have positive or negative effects. Despite Paikin breaking the discussion down into three easy-to-digest sections (effects on taxpayers, City workers, and customer service), the only concrete information to come out of the evening was the fact that nobody knows for sure how contracting out garbage collection will ultimately affect the city.
Minnan-Wong stuck to his viewpoint that since privatization has worked in Etobicoke for 16 years, it’ll work between Yonge Street and the Humber River, also known as District 2 (the City’s garbage collection is divided into four sections). Based on the numbers in Etobicoke, Minnan-Wong proposed District 2 would see about a 15 to 20 per cent decrease in labour costs and $3 million less going toward equipment and vehicle costs. However, as Mackenzie pointed out, these figures are all based on what has happened in Etobicoke, which, with its wider streets and lower density relative to central Toronto, is like “comparing apples and oranges.”
Though Mackenzie was quick to call Minnan-Wong’s numbers “really misleading,” he didn’t have any concrete numbers of his own either, instead rehashing the former City of York’s switch from privatized garbage collection back to public service workers in 2006, and raising questions regarding pricey enforcement and quality control issues.
The suggestion made by the Toronto Environmental Alliance earlier this week that City staff have “seriously overestimated” the savings to come from privatization was also quickly rejected, as the studies TEA relied on were both inconclusive and dated back to 1994 and 1989.
It was when the audience questions started that Minnan-Wong began to unravel. He was interrogated about everything from the potential for strikes, to privatization alternatives, to how a successful bid from a private company will be awarded, to ensuring women are fairly represented in a private sector work force. Thrown off his talking points, he responded to at least four of about 20 questions with “I don’t know,” or something similar. At one point, he told a concerned City employee, who happens to not be one of the 300 temporary workers in jeopardy: “You’re not going to lose your job, so you’re not affected.”
As the largely anti-privatization crowd of about 75 people strong became increasingly frustrated with Minnan-Wong’s responses, Paikin was forced to jump in and remind them of the request he made at the beginning of the night: “Friends, friends, let’s just listen…unless it’s incredibly witty, then you can heckle.”
City council will vote on the proposed privatization of waste services at its next meeting, on May 17–18.
Photos by Carly Conway/Torontoist.