By Mike Wood
If you look at the Norristown Municipal Waste Authority’s website, you might never know they’d just won a fight for their existence.
On December 15, 2020 the Norristown Municipal Council voted unanimously to repeal ordinances 20-14, and 20-15, delivering a victory to the people of Norristown. Ordinance 20-14 would have transferred the sewer authority’s assets to the municipality, and ordinance 20-15 authorized the sale of those assets to Aqua Pennsylvania, Inc.
The repeal of this legislation officially puts the brakes on the proposed $82 million sale, which would have seen Norristown joining a growing trend of utility privatization in Pennsylvania. Aqua has recently acquired Lower Makefield’s sewer system, and is in the process of purchasing the Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority. Nearby Conshohocken recently began the process as well.
This trend began in 2016 when the state passed a law that would allow private companies to offer higher bids to municipalities to purchase their aging utilities.
Activists within Norristown fought an uphill battle over the course of seven months, and three rounds of petitioning. That fight started back in May when council allowed Aqua to begin advertising the sale. Several everyday citizens got wind of this, and attended Aqua’s public presentation. As Rachel Fecho —one of those citizens— put it, “This is not presenting information to the public, this is a sales pitch from Aqua.”
Following this meeting, Fecho and three other Norristown residents—Maccabee Hirsch, David McMahon, and Fernando Feliciano, Jr, who serves as treasurer for the Norristown Municipal Waste Authority—knew they had to take action. So they formed Norristown Opposes Privatization Efforts (NOPE) in order to raise awareness of the issue.
NOPE began petitioning residents to express public opposition to the sale, utilizing a provision in Norristown’s charter which allows citizens to create a ballot initiative or referendum. The only catch being that you need signatures equal to “at least 15% of all votes cast for all candidates for Governor in the last gubernatorial election”.
In addition to an outpouring of public comments at a June 16 council work session, the group presented a public letter signed by 101 people. They raised concerns regarding the transparency of the process, the finalizing of a sale of neighboring East Norriton’s sewer to Essential Utilities Inc, and the potential ramifications that residents could face. Nevertheless council voted 5-2 to advertise ordinance 20-11 to the public, setting it up for a vote at the next meeting, which would have finalized the sale if it passed.
Despite the original petition not having the required signatures, momentum was building. A second petition was circulated to force a ballot initiative. This time the sewer authority themselves got involved. They helped with the creation of yard signs, bringing even more public awareness to the sale. The ordinance to sell the sewer required the vote of the authority, and in August they voted to table a resolution that would have continued the process.
Council fired back at the authority. During the closing moments of their August 18 work session, a surprise ordinance was introduced that would dissolve the sewer authority entirely. Ordinance 20-13 is not on the agenda for that meeting. Curiously, the minutes from this particular meeting are not available online, though I was able to obtain a copy from the borough via a right to know request.
Ordinance 20-13 did not come to a vote, but less than a month later council again voted 5-2 to advertise ordinances 20-14 and 20-15. A few weeks after that in October council voted along the same lines to enact those ordinances. Only Council Vice-President Rebecca Smith, and Councilman Hakim Jones voted against the transfer and sale of the sewer system to Aqua. Council President Derrick Perry, along with members Sonya Sanders, Heather Lewis, Valerie Scott Cooper, and Thomas Lepera all consistently voted in favor of the sale during this process.
This was a big blow to NOPE, and to all the citizens who had been working tirelessly to fight this. However, David McMahon says the provocative actions of the council served to draw the lines of this fight.
Their work was cut out for them. The same threshold of 15% or 1261 signatures would be required around election day, but this time on 2 petitions, one for each ordinance. The growing coalition of volunteers got back into action and hit the pavement, collecting signatures door-to-door, as well as in public spaces like Grocery Stores.
I asked both Fecho and McMahon what they thought the biggest factor in garnering public support was for them. In addition to concerns about environmental impact, they both agreed that it seemed to boil down to rates. Even by Aqua’s own projections in that May presentation, people could have been paying double to triple their current rates by 2030.
As McMahon puts it, “It’s a $5 million a year operation… by the time that rates are doubling… Aqua Pennsylvania is gonna be charging $10 million a year to run a $5 million a year operation. And that is millions of dollars leaving Norristown every single year on the backs of people who are hard pressed to afford that already.” This was the way McMahon most often framed the sale to people.
NOPE ultimately collected more than 2000 signatures on each of its final petitions, well above the threshold required. Before the petitions could even be certified, Aqua withdrew its bid. Then a couple weeks later, council unanimously repealed the ordinances. NOPE had officially won their fight. None of the 5 members of council who were initially in favor of the sale were willing to comment on the vote.
As far as next steps for NOPE, it seems they have their eyes on the council, and finding candidates to challenge for those seats on an anti-privatization platform. Not only that, they also expressed a desire to spread this momentum to nearby communities like Bucks County.
Their advice for preventing this sort of thing from happening here? Stay aware of what’s happening in your local government. Fecho says early intervention is key. “I just realized the capacity they have to just do stuff without public awareness because they count on us not paying attention, not speaking up, or feeling like we have no power.”
McMahon left me with a final message that organizers around the globe can heed. “This was a very clear up/down fight. In general, I’m very resistant to framing anything as left/right. The way I explain socialism to people is as a more thoroughgoing democracy. So what we are talking about is broadening democratic principles… actual increased democracy in our politics… in our workplaces… in our economy as a whole. And that’s exactly what this was at a very hyper-local level, which is key cause everyone gets the notion of ‘this is our thing, we want to run it, we want to have a say, we want to be heard.’”
“We wanna run this shit ourselves.” he simplified through a chuckle. “These issues, they seem so huge. What do you do about the worldwide commodification of water? Right? Well you fight it—in Norristown—by stopping a corporation from taking over your wastewater system. And you replicate it in as many places as you can.”