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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Water logjam

A tied vote on the issue of allowing bottled water back at city facilities in competition with city water means that the "ban" on sales is still there. A tie is not a win. But expect that the issue will be hotly debated at Council on Monday, February 28th. Stay tuned.

At the beginning of every agenda of Council or its various committees is the City’s Vision Statement. It reads as follows

“We are a caring, responsive community committed to the health and well-being of all Londoners. The actions we take will be socially, environmentally and fiscally responsible so that our quality of life is enhanced and sustained for future generations. Our people, heritage, diverse economy, strategic location, land and resources are our strengths.”

Perhaps, if the members of the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee had actually taken time to read that statement, last night’s meeting would have ended a little sooner and with less rancour.

Or perhaps the statement should be more specific, especially on the issue of resources. Perhaps we should have said straight out, We are so blessed to have abundant clean water from two different sources, Lake Erie and Lake Huron. We are so fortunate to live in a country and a province with high standards of water quality and testing. We are so lucky to have a $1.8 billion asset in the form of our water infrastructure. And we can drink 8 glasses a day every day of the year for only $1.88!

Instead, we heard about how denying our citizens the opportunity to pay $2 a bottle for water from the private sector in our public facilities was endangering the health and well-being of our children, forcing them to drink pop, and inflicting obesity and diabetes on them. The city-provided options of water glasses and pitchers of water, re-usable water bottles and drinking fountains and refilling stations were described as unhygienic and dangerous.

Following a presentation by John Challinor II, a representative of Nestle Water, Ward 10 Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen started it off by asking why the representative was there thus providing an opening for Nestle to air their concern that, given they have 39% of the market share of bottled water, Nestle’s had not been fully consulted before the “ban”. There followed some glowing accounts of the health benefits of bottled water as well as assurance that Nestle Water, as a supplier of grocery stores rather than vending machines, had no stake in the outcome of this issue.

Ward 4 Councillor Steve Orser had a question for the delegation from Nestle as well. He claimed aggressively that someone who was lobbying him to retain the ban on sales had told him that the water bottles were not recyclable. “Are they lying to me? he demanded. “I’m going to reverse my vote on it.”

Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown, not a committee member, entered the fray, supporting Orser’s contention and said that she too had told by someone that the bottles were not recyclable.

Challinor assured them that there was an excellent recycling program and virtually all bottles are recycled.

Staff pointed out that although the plastic is recyclable, many of them end up in the landfill and even those that are recycled end up costing the taxpayer money in recycling fees which are only partially covered by the industry. Additionally they consume energy and produce additional pollutants in the course of being transported to their commercial destination.

Then VanMeerbergen jumped the gun.

“What we did in 2008 was a real step backwards,” he said, calling the ban of sales of bottled water a “draconian step”. Alleging that this was (wait for it) “Nanny-state-ism,” he moved that the sale of bottled water be restored to all city facilities. The motion was immediately seconded by Orser.

Ward 2 Councillor Bill Armstrong looked to the public gallery and noted the many young Londoners there in support of the ban on bottled water sales in municipal locations. “The youth in our community have come out today to send the message that we need to protect our environment, ' he observed. "London is a leader; we’re not going to go backwards.”

When he noted that Orser had previously supported the position, Orser took umbrage. “Are you calling me a flip-flopper?” he shouted.

This lack of civility by those who wanted the industry’s products back for sale in city facilities was most disconcerting. Attacks on other councillors, staff and even the youth in the public gallery were rude, aggressive, disdainful and condescending, depending on the speaker, from the Mayor on down.

“I’m tired of being lectured,” the Mayor barked. It was hard to tell whether he was directing his complaint to dissenting councillors or staff. The latter were clearly shaken by his outburst. “You said something that I’m really shocked about, that bottled water is unsafe”. Staff quickly replied that there was no intention to describe bottled water as unsafe but that it is subject to less rigorous testing standards than municipal water.

I am particularly distressed by the attacks on staff. Politicians have the right to ask questions and to expect forthright answers. Staff needs to be able to support its own recommendations.

What staff members shouldn’t be expected to do is to be berated for giving their best advice when asked or to take the heat for implementing the decisions of their political masters. The City hires public servants for their expertise; their recommendations should be treated with respect if not acceptance.

And it doesn’t contribute to respect for public officials when their past decisions are derided by the incumbent mayor as “philosophically dumb”, as the Mayor pronounced.

The decision that Council made more than two years ago earned London admiration and kudos around the world. Many municipalities, 84 by a recent count, across Canada have followed our lead.

In the end, the motion failed on a tied vote. Ward 7 Councillor Matt Brown was not prepared on the spot to undo the work of a previous council which had studied the issue and heard from the public, especially when staff was clear that the reasons for which the “ban” was originally recommended were still solid.

That left the Mayor, VanMeerbergen and Orser without the added vote they needed to prevail. Committee Chair Harold Usher, who joined Armstrong and Matt Brown in opposing re-introducing the sale of bottled water, pointed out that he had been present at the Board of Directors’ meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities where London’s joint motion with Toronto on bottled water was debated.

“That resolution was not the resolution of a few activists but by our councils. It was unanimously passed at FCM. Many municipalities have followed us. If we rescind this motion, we will go backwards,” he warned.

The Mayor was not moved. “This is not a high priority with me,” he said. “ I disagreed with this issue at the time,”although he was not on council then.  “I prefer to drink bottled water to our own tap water.”

That’s right. We provide water to Arva, too.


Anonymous said...

Ward 4's full-time flip flopper Steve Orser is an embarrassment to the City of London.

Orpheus said...

All City Hall has seemed able to do in the last few years is ban, ban, ban, ban. It's ridiculous. This is another of those feel-good left-wing issues. Lift the ban. Doo-gooder, left-wing environmental policies have gotten out of hand. The advocates deserve to hear some "disrespectful" language directed their way. Respect has to be earned,...some people think that bad ideas, and people who believe in them deserve respect too. I judge them and find them wanting.

Anonymous said...

Gina, thank you for this important report, I hope many people read it. I admit I support the ban, but even if I didn't I would be disturbed by what is going on here. First, Nestle is not only acting like a bully, it has found other bullies to do their work for them! Shame on Nestle, and shame on our elected officials for falling for it- they look ridiculous. Second, it is very clear that the Mayor not only owes City Hall staff an apology, but needs to renew his understanding of their expertise. No one expects the Mayor to know everything- that's why we need staff! Thanks, again Gina.

fred said...

Well Gina, it appears that Councillor "Nanny State" VanMeerBergen reads your blog. At least your post from Sunday. And is upset that he can't buy his kids $2 bottles of water when they come to city hall. And that he blindly and automatically sides with corporate interests no matter what is best for the citizens he (rep)resents.

Anonymous said...

If it is not a high priority item for the Mayor, why did he even put the letter from Nestle Waters on the agenda and invite the lobbyist to present to the committee?

Anonymous said...

You don't tug on superman's cape,
You don't spit into the wind,
You don't pull the mask off the old
Lone Ranger,
And you don't mess up Arva Joe with the facts.

Real Leaders don't bully said...

It is really obscene that the Mayor seems to get his kicks from bullying staff. Has it forgot that leadership means encouraging folks or maybe he just doesn't know.

Anonymous said...

To Real Leaders:

I believe that the problem is that
18 years in Ottawa have given the Mayor a built-in and automatic arrogance that he is incapable of realizing is really politically stupid. Instead of attracting the kind of help from councillors and staff that will prove essential for success in the long run, his attitude problem will make him ememies, silent or otherwise, who may well prove his undoing.

Anonymous said...

Nestle's only goal is profit.
They don't contribute to the betterment of the society's they set up shop in by doing volunteer work or making charitable donations, as most other Corporations who do business in The City of London have agreed to...as evidenced in this snippet from them..."Thank you for contacting us. We work hard to ensure each and every one of our products is perfect in every way—your feedback helps us do just that.

Dear Mrs....,We do not have an internship, recruitment, or volunteer programs. We have forwarded your feedback to our Marketing Team for future consideration...Thank you for choosing Nestlé...Consumer Care Specialist
Toll-free 1-800-387-4636
9 a.m.–6 p.m. EST, Mon–Fri

Do Londoners really want to do business with a huge corporation whose only purpose is to profit from the sale of lifes most necessary and precious commodity?

I don't think so.
This isn't about a ban.
It's about protecting ourselves from exploitation.

Why's woman said...

Is there any way to tell if Anonymous is a different person or the same person in all these comments? Anonymous1 Anonymous2 Anonymous3

Best regards

Gina Barber said...

I don't think I have any way of knowing that but I am just beginning to appreciate all the nuances of this program. Mind you, you can't always tell even if people use names. That was one of the problems that the Free Press ran into, people using other people's name when posting comments. However, I would encourage people to use their own names or a pseudodonym just so that we can keep all the characters straight.

fred said...


A very good primer for anybody who doesn't see the big deal...

Mike said...

Thank you for that link, Fred! I've shared it with my online networks. There were a couple of pointers I had forgotten about as well.

ChrisD said...

we live in an age of immediate gratification with little thought for the future. Regardless of whether we believe in using or banning water bottles, is it really a hardship to anyone? Can we not fill reuseable bottles when we go out or fill them from available fountains? Is there any health risk from not being able to purchase water in a bottle? I do not recall a time when there was a thirst or hydration problem when I was out. I guess it has been a habit of when I go out for a hike to take my stainless steel bottle full of water when I go. Would you take a baby out without a bottle, or take the kids on a long drive without a snack? Why can we not fill a bottle of water before we go. I do not see a need to have to buy bottles for convenience and the expense is horrendous. I am also tired of picking up cups and bottles every time I go on a walk to put someone elses trash in a bin.