300 people can't be wrong

Did you see the movie 300? I’d recommend it. It was an historical movie about ancient Athens and Sparta, where 300 Spartans held off an attack at a pass against an insurmountable and overwhelming foe. They knew they would all die, but it was done to protect their families and their courage in battle ended up uniting Greece which was the only way for the Greeks to win the larger war.

Last Monday night, the Acton Board of Selectmen (BOS) decided to ignore over 300 signatures of opposed transfer-station users and approve Pay As You Throw (PAYT), which will force users to purchase bags in which to dispose of their garbage. Ken "Leonidas" Henderson said he collected the signatures in about six hours and 90% of the people he approached signed his petition.

Like the Spartans, Henderson was doomed to failure. The BOS designed a process that would likely allow them to approve the change while hiding behind an unnecessary and flawed Town Meeting vote. Maybe Henderson's work and sacrifice will call attention to this problem and Acton voters will unite to demand change.

PAYT is a more cumbersome disposal system designed to reduce overall trash tonnage, which the users pay to haul away as part of their transfer-station fee. But fundamentally, this is about changing people's behavior. Any user today is free to compost or recycle. Under the new system, there will be an economic benefit to do so (and a cost not to do so.)

To put this another way, the users who care about recycling want to force the other users to care more. Convincing other users evidently won't work unless you penalize them financially. That sounds like a weak argument in favor of the change, doesn't it?

Statistics were shown that PAYT would reduce Acton’s trash. Statements were made that the number of users would remain constant. Proponents predicted that tonnage of garbage would decrease 25%-45% over what is produced now. That seems like an outlandish claim, but it could happen.

High-volume users will end up paying more, so they may be strongly encouraged to change their behavior. They could get rid of a couple of their kids, stop using disposable diapers and switch to cloth ones, or go on crash diets and eat a lot less.

Or, they could switch to a private hauler which has no such per-bag restrictions and end up saving time, gas, hassle, and perhaps even money over what they would pay under the new plan. So it is possible that heavy users will leave the transfer station, which will definitely affect the net tonnage.

Very light users who can’t be bothered to go to the transfer station and don't want to pay a $200 annual sticker fee might be encouraged to change their habits when the sticker price is cheaper (or for seniors, almost free.) The convenience of curbside pickup by a private hauler might be comparably more expensive for them versus PAYT, so the town might see some new users who don’t dispose of much garbage and can save a lot of money with an inexpensive sticker.

If both scenarios end up happening, there will be a migration of use. Heavy users will switch to curbside pickup and light users will buy a transfer-station sticker. This could "reduce tonnage" but not accomplish any more recycling or reduce the overall amount of garbage produced.

It could therefore be true that PAYT would change behavior, but not in the way its proponents predicted.

300 people can’t be wrong

“Process” refers to the way something is done, as in the procedure. It also implies something that is thought-out, as in a good process (or a bad process). Several speakers at the BOS meeting praised the process the BOS used to make their PAYT decision.

Here's what the BOS did. They took a straw poll in which the members supported the concept, they scheduled a Town Meeting vote to gauge voter response, and when Town Meeting passed it by a vote of around 120 to 70, they held another meeting and approved moving to the new system. This last meeting was held on June 8th, 2015, and it included a lot of public testimony, most of it against making the change.

As a student of process, one wants to support the end result if a good process is followed. But I don't believe the BOS can use their process as justification for their vote.

By far, the most compelling evidence against PAYT was submitted by resident Ken Henderson (who has also written a couple of articles on PAYT for Acton Forum.) Henderson put together a petition against implementing PAYT and went to the Transfer Station for several hours and asked users to sign. He got over 300 signatures. You can view the signatures collected here: http://doc.acton-ma.gov/dsweb/View/Collection-6852.

Henderson was asked no questions by the Selectmen. They accepted his petition and then ignored it. Why don't the opinions of 300 transfer station users matter to the Selectmen? Is it because the evidence contradicts their wishes and they are trying to hide behind their flawed process?

Here's more evidence. Acton Forum did a survey of readers several months ago which also got about 300 responses. These were not transfer-station users, although many survey respondents self-identified as users. Of the entire survey, PAYT was rejected by a two-to-one ratio. Of those who said they used the transfer station, it was rejected by a three-to-one ratio. (See http://www.actonforum.com/story/pay-you-throw-rejected-survey-respondents).

There is no question that the BOS has the power to make this decision, and asking Town Meeting to vote on it is the accepted method of getting public feedback. Unfortunately, Town Meeting has several flaws as I have described repeatedly on Acton Forum. The process is inherently unfair, giving too much weight to proposals that are favored by town leaders (like PAYT), but more importantly, the deck can easily be stacked because turnout at Town Meeting is extremely low. According to the town clerk’s office, only 381 voters checked in for the second night, and by the Moderator’s count of the PAYT vote, it was approved by about 120 to 70. That is under 200 actual voters present.

Proponents are well aware of how to increase the odds of winning at Town Meeting. Get your voters to attend.

Green Acton, the group behind PAYT, and Acton’s 2020 committee, another supporter, used their resources, membership, and email lists to encourage supporters to go to Town Meeting. This is perfectly legal and is a common tactic. The School crowd uses this same method to get hundreds of voters to Town Meeting to approve school budgets when there is opposition by people like me.

But PAYT opponents had no group, just a few individuals like Henderson who expressed misgivings. No “con” presentation was made at Town Meeting, but even if it had been, the proponents had already stacked the deck.

If Town Meeting is going to attract one or two percent of the registered voters, anything can happen; and motivated and organized groups can have a disproportionate effect on votes. This appears to be the case in this instance. We have good evidence that users were not happy about the proposed change, but they were not organized and not terribly motivated to spend hours at Town Meeting. But “Green Acton” proponents were just the opposite—they could organize their members to go, and even though the group is small and the support seems shallow, it was enough to win based on poor attendance at Town Meeting.

I've looked at some of the "Green Acton" minutes, and they typically get five or 10 members at their monthly meeting. So we have a handful of activists, backing of the BOS, and an email list of supporters and that should trump the opinion of 300 actual users?

So long as Town Meeting can be manipulated like this, the Town Meeting process cannot be trusted to give reliable and accurate results. And we have significant evidence that transfer-station users are mostly opposed to this change, which is further evidence of a flawed TM process.

We can’t say what would have happened had 500 or 600 voters shown up for Town Meeting. It is possible that PAYT still would have passed. But should “non-users” be making decisions of this nature when it is fairly easy to identify users and ask them?

BOS Chair Katie Green was asked directly if a survey had been done of transfer station users, and the answer was no. Was this because such a survey would have been difficult? Was it because it would have been too costly? Or was it because proponents of PAYT didn’t want to know the results of that data? Would knowing for sure that users were against PAYT have made it impossible for the BOS to vote according to how their members already felt?

We should also acknowledge that user preference should not be the final word either. If you asked users if they’d like to use the transfer station for free, I’m sure 95% would vote for that option.

But changing something that most people don't think is broken to a new system that is unpopular is a bad decision. "Process" should be used to prove that there is support, or that users have illegitimate reasons for being opposed and maybe need to be educated. Instead, the process appears to have been used to confirm the BOS' prior decision. They ignored the signatures presented, the evidence of Henderson's comments, and the Acton Forum survey results, because this contradicted their preconceived notions.

What I think makes the transfer-station special in Acton is the social aspect of it. Once a week, you get to participate in a communal activity and you get to see your friends and neighbors (or so I am told.) The transfer station is not cost-effect when you consider all the costs (time, gas, wear-and-tear on the car, plus the sticker fee.) For most, the cost of the new system won’t be that much different. For most, they already recycle and will continue to do so. For most, buying the bags will just be another thing on their shopping list.

But imposing change is hard and can be controversial. This change hit a nerve with Henderson and some other users; perhaps not a strong-enough nerve to get hundreds of voters to spend hours at Town Meeting, but enough that they will express their support by signing a petition. With that direct evidence in hand, the BOS had an obligation to look into this further. Was the process the BOS used valid (No.) Was Henderson's evidence convincing? (Yes.) Then investigate further and conduct your own survey to see if users actually support the change or not.

And if you think users are making the wrong decision or need to be educated about other important issues, then take the time to educate them and then survey them again. But don't impose something that is not supported by the vast majority of users.

And don't hide behind a bad process and try to convince people that it was good.

Ken Henderson's last article on PAYT: http://www.actonforum.com/story/transfer-station-not-broken

Town Meeting and PAYT vote: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/benign-dictatorship

Subscribe to the Acton Forum and get our newsletters emailed to you -- FREE! Click on http://www.actonforum.com/subscribe-actonforum-newsletter

Comments

Citizens are not represented

On May 8th the selectmen held a meeting to discuss and vote on PAYT. At the meeting residents spoke of their disapproval of PAYT and I personally submitted hundreds of names of Transfer Station users that were also against PAYT. It was quite obvious from the beginning of the meeting that the Selectmen and Town Manager were going to implement PAYT no matter what was expressed at the meeting.
It was pointed out at the meeting that over ninety percent of the Transfer Station users were against PAYT. Selectmen were NOT willing to visit the Transfer Station to listen to the users because they knew doing so would not support their agenda. Instead Selectmen decided (with only one dissenter) to vote with the special interest group (Green Committee) and the TM, not the over 3000 users of the TS.
No matter what your position regarding PAYT, our representatives should perform some level of research when making a decision that will effect over 3000 households! It time to elect our representatives and hire Managers that listen to the citizens of Acton, not just the special interest groups that make up the voting populace at Town Meetings.
Ken Henderson

ken henderson