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Saturday, July 12, 2008
American Fork's Mythical Opt-Out Recycling Program

It's mythical because it doesn't exist, at least not yet. (Please note that no actual horses were harmed in the creation of this blog post. All equine carnage herein is metaphorical.)

You've probably read something somewhere about American Fork switching from its current opt-in recycling program, where you have to sign up to participate, to an opt-out program, where everyone gets billed for recycling unless they notify the City that they don't want to be in the program. At this point, it's not exactly news. But it's not exactly real, either.

Part of me says opt-out is a reasonable compromise between the current program and mandatory recycling. (Some prefer to call it universal instead of mandatory. Whatever.) Part of me says that the City just threw in its collective lot with the retailers who use rebates to get people to buy things, knowing they'll make good money on all the people who forget to send for the rebate in time; it feels a bit underhanded. Part of me says that the City should try a serious public relations campaign for its current recycling program before it gives up on the current program.

That's too many parts of me to track, really, but the merits of the idea aren't really my point here. The political reality is, and it's a bit weird. You start to get a sense of it from what was reported.

What Was Reported

The Daily Herald incorrectly reported on June 29 that American Fork already switched to an opt-out system. The Deseret News was closer to reality with its report that the City Council "has decided to develop" such a program. There was also a report or two that the City was already trying to figure out how to spend the $50,000 it will save on garbage dumping fees with a more aggressive recycling program, but some elected officials promptly reminded other elected officials that the law doesn't allow dollars to be shuffled from an "enterprise fund" (such as garbage collection) back into the general fund, so we probably won't hear too much more about that.

There was an item at American Fork City's official web page for a while, which explained more or less accurately what the City Council actually did. I believe it said, "City staffers have been told to write an ordinance governing the program for council members to debate." But it's gone now, in favor of a short blurb urging residents to sign up for the current recycling program.

What Really Happened

What really happened is rather odd and pointless. Here's the account from the official minutes of the City Council's June 10 meeting.

First, there was a motion:

Councilmember Kramer moved to approve implementation of an opt-out recycling program and direct staff to prepare an ordinance to this effect. Councilman LeBaron seconded the motion.

Then, after discussion, the motion was amended, the second accepted the amendment, and there was a vote. The motion approving the ordinance passed three to two.

Councilmember Kramer amended her motion to implement the opt-out program, with the first step being to direct staff to come back with an ordinance specifying the detail on the optout program. Councilman LeBaron accepted the amendment. Mayor Thompson called for a vote on the motion. Those voting in favor were Councilmember Kramer, Councilman LeBaron, and Councilman Storrs. Councilman Gunther and councilmember Rodeback voted against the motion. The motion carried.

Why This Is Weird

Even after the vote, the City does not have an opt-out recycling program. The ordinance the Council approved did not create or order the implementation of such a program. It simply ordered City staff to do what the Mayor could have directed staff to do without an ordinance. The Mayor seems to support the program, so what was the point of this ordinance?

The real vote, the vote on an ordinance which implements a detailed opt-out recycling plan, comes sometime later, by which time the vote may be different.

These motions and ordinances are prepared in advance by City staff. The motions themselves are subject to the whims of the Council members who make and second the motions. I could be wrong, but I don't see how this particular vote was anything more or less than a waste of time, an unfortunate mix of ill-conceived staff work and unreflective governance.

The way these things work in a rational political world -- pardon the likely oxymoron -- is as follows: Staff drafts an ordinance. Council passes it or not, possibly after some amendment, and perhaps after significant additional staff work. Then, assuming the ordinance passed, staff implements the ordinance. In this case, what happened was more like this: The Council passed an ordinance to implement the program by directing staff to draft an ordinance implementing the program for the Council to adopt so that staff can implement it. This is a few degrees of illogic beyond merely putting the cart before the horse. It is more like putting cart and horse into the same gigantic blender and flipping the switch. It's a gory mess.

So What?

If you're wondering what staff work might have been appropriate on this issue, read MFCC's account of why she voted against the ordinance. No one seemed to be able to come up with numbers to justify the change, but -- except for actually drafting the ordinance that implements the program -- isn't that the most obviously necessary staff work on this issue?

Meanwhile, the majority of the Council seems to think that anyone who doesn't opt out by August 31 will get a new, large blue container and an additional $4.75 on the monthly water/sewer/garbage bill. So presumably they intend the second, real ordinance to be ready and passed by then. But they haven't done it yet. They haven't done anything yet, really, that needed to be done by the City Council.

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