On November 4, 2008, Akron residents went to the polls and issued a resounding call for public control of water and sewer services. With a countywide voter turnout of more than 70 percent, Akron overwhelmingly rejected privatization and overwhelmingly supported the public’s right to have a voice in what happens to their utilities.
“We looked at this as a right to decide issue,” said Greg Coleridge of Akron, who along with Jack Sombati, led the people of Akron, Ohio, to a great public victory against a well-oiled political campaign to privatize their sewers.
“It was a wonderful collective victory with so many people having a role that was so powerful,” said Coleridge, the director of the Economic Justice and Empowerment Program for the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee.
Coleridge and Sombati, the campaign coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Ohio Council 8, brought together stakeholders throughout the city to form a broad coalition of labor, faith and community organizations known as Citizens to Save Our Sewers and Water. After a grueling campaign, Citizens SOS triumphantly put an end to the ill-advised plan to privatize the city’s sewers.
In 2008, Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic proposed leasing the city’s sewer systems to a private company for as long as 99 years. He masked the privatization under the guise of a scholarship program. He said he wanted the sewer lease to garner a multimillion-dollar upfront payment that would help send high school graduates to local colleges and trade schools.
The plan was irresponsible and unnecessary. The lease would have been merely a cumbersome and expensive loan that city residents would have had to pay back through their sewer bills.
The Organizing Effort
Citizens SOS focused on getting the word out about the little that was known about the lease and the scholarship. Part of their success was their quick response. They were on the street before the mayor had produced any details about the lease. They contacted the city council and organized film screenings to educate the community and gauge public opinion. “Food & Water Watch sent grassroots speakers from Stockton and Detroit to share their first-hand experiences of privatization horrors,” Coleridge said.
Overall, the public responded very negatively to the sewer lease.
“People didn’t like this proposal because when you turn over public control, citizens are defenseless,” said Coleridge, adding that this fear was particularly strong among people on “the cusp of losing their homes” who may not be able to afford rate hikes.
Citizens SOS decided that the best way to counter the mayor’s proposal was to require voter approval before the privatization of any public utility. To do this, they needed to pass a ballot referendum, which required them to collect enough signatures to get their proposal on the November 2008 ballot and then educate voters about the issue. By mid-July 2008, Citizens SOS had circulated 150 petitions and collected nearly 4,000 valid signatures, more than enough to get their issue on the ballot.
“People were pretty positive once you explained what we were trying to do,” said Coleridge. “We had no problems getting signatures.” Citizens SOS explained that they wanted to give residents the right to decide whether to privatize any public utility.
The city council, however, refused to move on the measure at a July meeting and had to hold a special session during its August recess to vote on it. The delay gave the mayor extra time to come up with not just one ballot proposal, but four separate measures related to privatization. “They were all baloney,” said Coleridge. “They were only added to try to confuse. Our initiative then would become part of a cauldron of mush. It would be hard to differentiate it.”
Nearly 75 members of Citizens SOS attended the council meeting to ensure that their measure made it on the ballot. The council must have been on the same page as their constituents. Not only did the citizens’ issue pass, but also the council rejected three of the mayor’s four proposals related to the sewer lease. Several council members questioned the mayor’s intentions behind proposing four separate charter changes on the same issue. “It is disheartening to see purposeful action like this meant to confuse the voters,” said council member Michael Williams.
With the mayor’s plan on the ballot, Citizens SOS jumped into the second phase of their campaign: to educate the public.
“We ran a hell of a campaign,” said Sombati. “Billboards, television and radio ads, literature drops, debates. We covered parades and events. We took out newspaper advertisements, wrote letters to the editors, gave interviews with the press.”
“We used Food & Water Watch’s reports and letters, written especially for us, and personal visits of its organizers and executive director to help educate voters on the pitfalls of privatization,” Coleridge said.
All of it was necessary. The community was facing an uphill battle against a well-financed and aggressive counter-campaign by the mayor and his supporters. “The mayor has a patented negative attack on those who disagree with him,” said Sombati. “He started off his campaign that way.” The mayor called Citizens SOS everything from “naysayers” to “corrupt labor leaders” to “liars,” according to Sombati.
Citizens SOS merely countered with the truth, and when Election Day finally came, residents were well informed. They overwhelmingly voted down the mayor’s privatization plan and approved the citizens’ issue by a margin of 2 to 1.
Sombati and Coleridge believe that the mayor will not let the issue drop. Citizens SOS is preparing for the next round. “He may come back to voters with another version of his privatization scheme,” Coleridge said. “We’re going to be vigilant about this. … We’re going to continue to educate and organize.”