Thankfully, the Jackson garbage collection dispute has ended for this year. It was settled as a result of actions in the court of special chancery judge H. David Clark. To the surprise of few who are familiar with Mississippi Constitutional law, the judge indicated that to rule as the council majority urged, would mean altering the state constitution; that it is the city’s executive (mayor) who has the authority to present vendors for municipal contracts and the role of the legislature (Council) to approve or disapprove them.
With that reality front and center, the two sides reached something of a compromise, which was presented on Tuesday, the day after the court session. The city council voted 4 – 2 for the proposal providing a one-year emergency contract for Richard’s Disposal. (Councilman Kenneth Stokes was absent; Councilmen Ashby Foote and Vernon Hartley voted against it; and Councilpersons Angelique Lee, Brian Grizzell, Aaron Banks, and Vergi Lindsay voted in favor of it.) The vote got Jackson out of the woods, at least until this time next year.
What the writer would now like to see is two other changes that could (1) forestall the need for future contract bidding on garbage collection and (2) open up a way for citizens to be compensated for future inconveniences and losses when infrastructure problems, including garbage collection, arise.
First, city leaders would be wise to begin now returning to a fully functioning public works department. That department could be put in a position to take care of all of the city’s infrastructure needs – water, sewage, garbage collection, roads and bridges, and maybe power/energy, with its own staff and equipment. In order to build that capacity, a certain amount of money could be set aside each fiscal year until enough is accumulated to fund such a department.
We discussed the matter in the editorial, “How can we move beyond the garbage collection problem forever,” which appeared in this space last week. It is an idea that deserves serious consideration. It may get passed over, however, because it is not being proposed or advocated by a well-established organization or a powerful leader. It may also be tossed aside because the garbage collection dispute has been settled for the time being, and too often many people only respond in crises. It should be kept in mind that a similar dispute may break-out at the end of the one-year emergency contract or at any other time in the future. There is time now to build in preparation for such an eventuality.
The second proposal which we would offer is the establishment of a standing citizen’s advocacy group. Had such a group been in existence during the height of the debacle with Siemens, it could have gone to court on behalf of the water consumers in the city, that is, so that citizens would have been able to recoup some of the money they lost due to Siemens’ bad action. The city won the suit, but the citizens saw no refunds or credits, just an end to the financial hemorrhaging. The same thing happened during the height of the recent water crisis and the 18-day garbage collection dispute. The citizens have seen no financial relief based upon the added expense for automobile wear and tear and extra gas usage due to the conditions of the streets. As a matter of fact, in every case where citizens have experienced losses or serious inconveniences, they have simply had to “suck it up; to grin and bear it.”
Most political leaders, in these cases, try to present only their best side and to keep their budgets balanced. They do not consistently or systematically try to compensate or look out for the “incidental” losses or inconveniences of the citizens. The citizens, nevertheless, are entitled to such.
We realize that there are numerous civic and civil rights groups already on the scene, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, Common Cause, and numerous others. Furthermore, it is true that they generally do good work. The problem is that these groups all have their particular scopes of action, none of which are the infrastructures matters at the local level. We need a specific organization that is dedicated to protecting the interests of the citizens of the area, which may seem small, but can be quite important to individuals and families.
What we are suggesting is a broad-based group that can rely on a group of dedicated monitors/observers, investigators, and legal assistants, who could quickly spring into action against municipalities, public works contractors, and even utility companies on behalf of the citizen-consumers.
In addition to protecting the interests of the residents, the groups could be organized in such a way as to be a training ground for political scientists, social justice advocates, law students, and other public-spirited young people and as an outlet for experienced, but retired, citizens. The group should be non-partisan and operated in such a manner as to not serve as a political platform for ambitious, would-be leaders.
This is an idea whose time is ripe and for which there is a real need, given the fact that nobody has the citizen-consumers’ interest as the first priority in the areas where they live. We will continue to advance such ideas, with the hope that some of them will inspire some activists, but we will not hold our breath waiting for citizens to step forward to protect and advance their interests if it means assuming a responsibility and is not for the heeding of egos.