Friday, January 25, 2008

Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson Throws Mayor Street Under the Bus, Mayor Nutter Eats It Up

Recycle in PhiladelphiaWe were just getting ready to sing Mayor Nutter’s praises for wasting no time in getting shit done. He cleaned house on the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission — replacing five last-minute appointees by Mayor Street and naming 16 new appointees to three zoning and planning related bodies (the ZBA, the Planning Commission and the Zoning Code Commission), only one of which is a holdover from the Street Administration. He brought in people from all over the country to fill top-level cabinet positions, conducting nationwide searches for several, from Police Commission to the city’s Managing Director,

But then we learnt that the one position he did not bring in a prominent national candidate to fill was the Commissioner of the Streets Department. In fact, he retained Mayor Street’s old commissioner, one Clarena Tolson.
When I first read that Michael Nutter would be retaining Tolson's services, I honestly thought it was a misprint.
"This is the very antithesis of a new day and a new way," said one advocate. "Tolson stymied every effort to create a viable recycling program," another added.
For recycling advocates, Tolson is the Dirt Devil incarnate. Their rage is so huge that last year the Recycling Alliance asked all mayoral candidates to pledge not only to replace the Streets commissioner, but her deputy and the recycling coordinator, as well.

In addition to demanding a "national search" for the "most qualified" candidates in their five-point agenda, the Alliance also had mayoral hopefuls promise "total transparency," by promoting cooperation between the new Streets commissioner and the very groups whom Tolson had shut out.

Nutter was first in line to endorse their agenda. He lauded the coalition as "an outstanding example of working together, inside government and outside." Now, these same leaders have been wondering how he could expect them to work with Tolson.
So what the fuck happened? How did Tolson come to convince Nutter that she was the right person to do, um, her job?

Well, apparently, she rather shrewdly appealed to a side of Mayor Nutter that’s sympathetic — the side that doesn’t think much of John Street.
"I have to state in the strongest terms that I did not break any promise," Nutter told me on the phone. "I did conduct a national search. I interviewed numerous people, and national still includes Philadelphia. Clarena was the last person I spoke with."
"The bottom line is this: Commissioners get to do what their boss allows them to do. If you have the resources, support and funding from the top, then departments can do a lot of things. But if you just give lip service and no support, it's virtually impossible for departments to do anything. And as a result, the commissioner is left holding the bag, and ends up in bad conflicts with the public."
So it appears Tolson blamed Street. (Someone must have shown her what to do with the proverbial mashed potatoes.) And Nutter bought it.

We can’t say whether that was the right move or not. We can, however, remind Mayor Nutter about two things.

First: One year ago today, he said he could fix the recycling debacle in 45-90 days. We intend to hold him to that.

And two, he also said he would raise the residential recycling rate to 40%. We definitely intend to hold him to that.

Ok. So maybe Tolson deserves credit for bringing Single Stream recycling to West Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, Center City and the Northeast, but she seems to have burned every bridge with local recycling activists along the way.

Moreover, when single stream recycling was introduced to Center City last month, no one knew about it. (We’re not sure anyone, aside from our three readers, even knows about it now.) The Streets Department didn’t even reach out to the Center City Residents Association to get the group to inform its members. How can you expect to improve recycling without any kind of effective community outreach??

And how can you expect people to recycle when you don’t even provide bins for them to recycle with???
Nutter reaffirmed his commitment to recycling, saying that "Philadelphians will be very pleased with the plan that's coming from the Streets Department."
We sincerely hope so.

Because it was only in February of last year (2007) that your girl Clarena Tolson professed that her Streets Department could achieve a residential recycling rate of 16% in three years!?!

(You’re telling us her three-year plan was that affected by Mayor Street?? Sounds a little suspect.)

Mayor Nutter — NB, you’re in for quite a surprise if you think a 16% recycling rate is gonna fly with us.

Because a 16% rate simply is not even gonna come close. Not by a long shot. In three years, Mr. Nutter, we need the rate to be 40%. We are dead serious.
Tolson, [Nutter] said, has a plan worked up to improve the city's recycling program. It needs time to get going, he said.
Woa, dude. What “time”?? And we thought you were the one with the plan? You know the one that could fix recycling in 45-90 days…

In case you haven’t noticed, Tolson’s plans don’t have the best track record.

As we stated way back when, Recycling, like Zoning and Transit, is a relatively simple issue that is easy enough to fix. And the good people at the Recycling Alliance, the RAC and the Next Great City have been trying to tell the city just how to do it. But Tolson and her cronies have been pretty unreceptive to the offers.

So we have to question the wisdom of retaining her.

But that’s the bed you made. So enjoy it.

In the meantime, here is some advice you should probably heed:

- Make it clear to Tolson that the onus is on her to put forth an olive branch to the recycling advocates and the RAC and to create a department that is much, much more approachable, collaborative and progressive. Community outreach, assistance and participation are key if recycling is to have any hope here.

- Make sure you allot the Streets Department enough (read “lots of”) money so they can afford new bins for every household in the city. You have no idea how many people ask us where they can get one of the city’s blue recycling bins. (The answer is nowhere.) And in our own experience, it seems like even though the Streets Department says you don’t need a blue bin and you can recycle with any mid-size open container marked “recycling,” more often than not, the stuff put at curbside not in a blue bin is picked up as trash and not recycled. We’ve even heard reports of recycling trucks confiscating blue bins that are filled to the brim, which is apparently too high for the likes of the recycling folk in the Streets Department. We shit you not.

- Don’t forget about RecycleBank. (They provide all households with bins.) Why have an inefficient city agency try to do what a private company already expertly does for profit and for the financial benefit of the city resident??

- Center City should be fucking BLANKETED in public recycling bins. Next to every trash can in Rittenhouse Square, Old City and every other trafficked pedestrian area, there should be a public, single-stream recycling bin where shoppers, diners, strollers, tourists, business people, etc. can recyle glass, cans, plastic bottles and newspapers as they cruise through our incredibly awesome and pedestrian-friendly downtown.

- Nine out of ten bars and restaurants in Philadelphia don’t recycle. There’s a law that say they have to, but what do you know, it’s not enforced. In a given week, the amount of bottles and cans that are thrown away in city bars instead of recycled is nothing short of tragic. You need to fix this. And fix it IMMEDIATELY.

- Do the math. The city pays $55-$60 a ton to send trash to the landfill. Blue Mountain will pay the city $25-$35 a ton for recyclables. Getting the rate up to 40% will SAVE THE CITY MORE THAN $20 MILLION A YEAR.

Mayor Nutter, you’re our boy. In the past year, you’ve given us more hope for the future of Philadelphia than we have had in years.

But greatly improved recycling is precisely one of the reasons for that. And recycling is an issue we feel quite strongly about. So we can’t just sit back and watch as nothing significant gets done.

To put it simply: we are expecting a sea change. A miracle even, considering this is Philadelphia. But, nevertheless, a miracle that is totally achievable.

You know how hard it is to currently recycle in Philadelphia?? Yes? Well, in one year, we want/expect it to be that difficult not to recycle. Weekly curbside recycling in every neighborhood. Coupon incentives for recycling more. Blue bins as far as the eye can see. My God, it will be beautiful.

We know you can do it, Michael. We just hope you’re right about Clarena.

Don’t expect a pass on this. We are definitely not fucking about.

From Whom the Belle Tolson [ City Paper ]
Letters to the Editor: Recycle This [ City Paper ]
Nutter Delays Budget Talk to Include Ramsey’s Plan [ Philadelphia Inquirer ]
Nutter’s Clean Sweep on Zoning [ Philadelphia Inquirer ]
Nutter: I Could Fix Recycling Program in 45-90 Days [ Greenadelphia ]
A Throw-Away Issue [ Philadelphia Weekly ]
The Same Old Story For Recycling in Philadelphia [ Dig Philly ]

Breaking: Single Stream Recycling — including plastic — finally comes to Center City. Hallelujah. Holy Shit. Where’s the Tylenol?
The Shame of Philadelphia: Recycling


Anonymous said...

Tolson was retained b/c Nutter is preparing to go to war w/ the unions, and she comes from a union family.

Anonymous said...

FYI - there are plenty of recycling bins available - go to the citizen's drop off at the streets department's 63rd & essington facility.

Anonymous said...

great post