Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Intersecting concerns

One of the comments at Saturday’s discussion on the incinerator was the observation that the parts of the world with the least transparency in government are also the most polluted.
This is the point of intersection between two current concerns in the Pontiac. One is the closed-door meetings where public policy is formulated and the other is the proposal to build an incinerator. Both are features of the same body, MRC Pontiac’s Council of Mayors.
And both are coming to a head in the coming weeks.
A motion passed unanimously at last month’s public session of the mayors’ council on whether to open the closed-door plenary to the public will see a vote held on the matter at this month’s public session.
Also, this month, the mayors will be reviewing what has been called an initial business plan for the proposed incinerator and deciding what to do with it.
If the consultants who wrote the business plan have followed their terms of reference, it is unlikely their document will compare the incinerator concept to anything other than landfilling, without considering how recycling and composting could reduce Pontiac’s 5,000-ton garbage endowment to something more like 1,000 tons. This is something akin to CNL’s proposal to build its nuclear waste dump about a kilometer from the Ottawa River without considering other options, a move which elicited fierce criticism from MRC Pontiac, among many other stakeholders.
Nor does it seem likely that the business plan will do anything beyond crunching numbers on such things as tons of garbage and tipping fees, without exploring the environmental pros and cons of trucking 395,000 tons of garbage into the Pontiac for high temperature burning on the shores of the Ottawa River, smack dab in the middle of our agriculture- and tourism-based economy. Or how we will dispose of the 100,000 tons of ash, much of it toxic, the envisioned incinerator is expected to produce.
Of course, these are only guesses. We, the public, don’t know what’s in the business plan, nor are we likely to know anytime soon. It’s a closely guarded secret. Until recently, only mayors on the Ontario side of the river had been given any kind of hint as to its contents, which was all rather rosy.
Which brings us back to the question of local transparency. It has been in our very untransparent local governance body that plans were laid to build an incinerator in the first place. Where the support of 18 mayors and their municipal councils had already been corralled before the public was brought into the conversation. Where a $200,000 plan to develop a feasibility study turned into a $120,000 plan, just shy of the threshold requiring a public tender process. Where that $120,000, made up mostly of a locally-raised tax surplus and not from readily-available grant money, was awarded to a company through a sole-source (i.e. non-competitive) contract apparently on the say-so of one person. Where the only argument in favour of using that specific company rested on its expertise with incinerators, having been the company that developed the business plan for the much-referenced Covanta incinerator installed in Durham York, only to discover that they, in turn, have simply subcontracted that expertise from yet another company. Where that other company had an exclusive opportunity to pitch its services to the mayors in, yes, a closed-door session, an opportunity not offered to other fully-qualified competitors. And where the name Covanta has been bandied about early and often as if it were the only company on the landscape worthy of mention in the same sentence as incineration.
Yes, technically speaking, every decision along the way was made by a vote held during a public meeting, in the bewildering whirlwind of resolutions that move through the room so quickly that often the mayors themselves are not sure what they are voting for. All without discussion, much less debate, and certainly without dissent because everything has already been hashed out in private plenary meetings the week before.
One can’t help but wonder, if the incinerator proposal is so wholesome, why is discussion of the issue by people we have elected being kept out of public view? As was asked at Saturday’s meeting, what else is going on behind the scenes out of public view?
Similarly, the question of transparency at the MRC meetings has itself been conducted in the dark. The only clue we have about what our mayors think on the question of opening up their closed-door plenaries to the bright, disinfecting light of day comes from an informal telephone survey this newspaper conducted a few months ago.
We need to change the game. We need big ideas like a $450 million incinerator dealt with transparently. We need everything that comes before our Council of Mayors dealt with transparently, beginning with the question of transparency itself.
Which is why we look forward to seeing how our mayors vote in the upcoming public meetings on these two issues. For anyone with a view on the matter, now might be a very good time to share it with your locally-elected representatives.
Because much hinges on their decisions, not just in terms of whether our future has a garbage-burning incinerator in it, but in terms of how we the citizens of the Pontiac are able to be privy to and participate in the process of shaping that future.

Charles Dickson


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