Friday, May 20, 2011

Let's talk trash

Last year the Mayor went whole hog in his efforts to sell off the city's landfill operations at Miramar Marine Air Corps Station.  His rationale was that our cash-strapped city could save money by transferring municipal landfill operations to a  profit-making private trash company.

The Mayor decided to privatize the landfill operation despite the fact that our landfill at Miramar has been a recognized success story, thanks to exemplary practices of the city's environmental services division to protect air and groundwater quality at the site.
Oddly, in an apparent attempt to lure in the private sector, our Mayor quietly snuffed out the city's high-level standards and spent half a million dollars on consultant fees for a landfill report to expedite the sale.  But privatization attempts fizzled when no acceptable buyer stepped up to the plate.

Why has last year's news become new news?  Because the pressure to privatize city services appears so irresistible to the Mayor that he's resurrected last year's failed push for a private takeover of Miramar landfill through an invention called "managed competition."

Managed what?  How many of you remember the political battle in 2006 over the "managed competition" ballot measure?  This cynical and somewhat cock-eyed concept was sold to and swallowed by San Diego voters as a panacea for our destitute city, a way to institute (according to the Mayor) a "smaller, more responsive and more cost-efficient city government."
Here's how "managed competition" works: the Mayor determines which and when a city service should be put out for bid.  This could include big-deal municipal services like our water, sewer, trash collection, planning, library, and parks and recreation departments.  Or smaller-deal city services like building and vehicle maintenance, printing/publishing, and street sweeping.  Once a department is targeted for "managed competition" the city circulates a public solicitation notice to private contractors to start the bidding process. 
The rationale for calling it "managed competition" and not outright privatization is that city employees in targeted departments would be offered the opportunity to submit a "competitive restructuring plan" demonstrating their ability to get the job done more cost-effectively and efficiently than private bidders.  In other words, they could compete with private contractors for their jobs.

Who thinks up these things?  In this case it's the brainchild of the Reason Foundation, a well-funded libertarian think tank dedicated, for the past three decades, to goals like shrinking government, reducing/eliminating taxes, and transferring government functions into private hands.  The Reason people are more than happy to come to your home town, create policy reports with local think tanks, support and "educate" politicians, and do whatever else it takes to dismantle the public face of government. 
For better insight into the marching orders San Diego has been responding to during the past few years, you need look no further than this partial list of Reason's How To Guides gleaned from their website:
  • How to Navigate the Politics of Privatization (How-to Guide #15)
  • A Guide for Divesting Government Owned Enterprises (#21)
  • Solid Waste Management: A Guide for Competitive Contracting for Collection (#16)
  • Privatizing Emergency Medical Service (#14)
  • Guidelines for Airport Privatization (#13)
  • Techniques for Mining the Public Balance Sheet -- a systematic process of identifying and divesting government assets through sale, lease, or other techniques (#10)
  • Long-term Contracting for Water and Wastewater Services (#19)
  • Designing a Comprehensive Privatization Program for Cities (#2)
Kind of takes your breath away, doesn't it? 

Self-centered, short-sighted, and greedy inclinations have never been strangers in our town, but San Diegans have traditionally drawn the line at hardball political ideology, fringe politics, and mean-spirited decision-making.  Now is not the time to redraw that line.  We ought to take a long, hard look at where our city has been drifting (or pushed) and choose a more productive option -- like identifying what’s broken and focusing our efforts on fixing it.
We have no right to dismantle city government to fulfill some group's ideology.  Our sitting politicians (Democratic, Republican, whatever...), labor leaders, bureaucrats, and moneyed-special interests have no right to create an emaciated city to hand down to future San Diegans.  Our Mayor and Council have no right to deliver piecemeal and deceptive responses to the city's financial crisis that only serve to deepen the city's decline.

What to do? Let's put "managed competition" to its highest and best use by circulating a public solicitation notice that initiates a competitive bidding process for a restructuring plan (aka Chapter 9 of the federal Bankruptcy Code) to fix what's broken in our city, while keeping all hands on top of the table, out of the city's till, and far removed from any more attempts to sell off and dismantle city government.