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.
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.