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March 11, 2010

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The community comes out for public sewage in Victoria

VICTORIA-The house was full at the second public meeting for citizens in the Capital Regional District to share their views on sewage treatment procurement. On March 10, the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee heard from a cross section of residents sending a powerful message that they do not want sewage treatment handed to private corporations through a public private partnership (P3).

Don Cameron, president of the Vancouver Island Equipment Operators implored the CRD to reject the P3 model – and to reject any mixed or hybrid approach which would see part of the system privatized. His message is that “local business is good business.” Cameron’s organization is encouraging its members to write urging the CRD to go public with sewage treatment. He joins a number of other local business people who have said that P3s are bad for local business.

The youngest person presenting, 26-year-old Craig Ashbourne – grew up just outside of Hamilton and talked about that city’s disastrous experience with sewage P3. Instead of the great deal that Hamilton city councillors thought they were getting by going private, they found themselves dealing with a decade of poor service, contract flipping, sewage spills and environmental problems.

NDP MLA Rob Fleming – a former Victoria city councillor – said that CRD directors face unprecedented provincial government interference in a local project. Describing the situation as ‘the tail wagging the dog,’ Fleming asked “where else can a one-third partner determine the entire scope and design of a project?”

A number of presenters talked about the importance of public services for young people and for their own children. Victoria resident Helen Hughes said that young people in the region should be able to have a say and not find themselves locked into a decades-long bad deal over which they had no control.

CUPE research representative Blair Redlin spoke about the negative trade implications of supporting a P3, citing the recent legal opinion from expert trade lawyer Steven Shrybman.

Keep It Public campaign coordinator Kim Manton offered her experience from three years of working for public sewage treatment. She began with the meeting in September 2007, when CRD directors supported a P3 for the Royal Jubilee patient tower, with no one watching. Her message was that “this time is different.” The CRD has ample evidence and information from around the world that P3s don’t work, and rooms full of engaged citizens. She also said that the CRD can be “crystal clear” about what residents want, and they also know that this decision will not only be witnessed but it will be communicated. Manton ended by simply saying “this time you have the opportunity to represent us with confidence.”

Victoria city councillor John Luton said that public services should be in public hands. Offering the example of the collapse of insurance giant AIG in the U.S. and the turmoil this created in state transit systems that had entered into P3s, Luton said “when something goes wrong, the public owner and operator will say how quickly can I fix this to make sure my shareholders get back the service they are paying for? The private operator is going to ask “is this in our contract?”

The evening ended with raging granny Fran Thorburn echoing the sentiments of many who fear that if sewage treatment goes private – corporations will come looking for drinking water next.

The next scheduled meeting of the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee is March 24 where councillors will vote to recommend a public or private system.

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