When water giant Suez and Wall Street partner KKR made their move to win a $811 million, 40-year water and sewer privatization deal in New Jersey, they had enough money to buy ads on TV and Facebook, and deliver round after round of fear-mongering junk mail to residents’ mailboxes.
On our side, we had a kind of power that money can’t buy: Volunteers and interns going door-to-door, and fired up residents who demanded a voice in their town’s future. We had people power.
Suez never stood a chance.
In a stunning win for public water, voters in Edison, New Jersey voted 84 percent to 16 percent in favor of bringing their sewer system and part of their drinking water system under public control. This makes the town—the fifth largest in New Jersey—the third municipality in the country to effectively ban water privatization, and the first to do so via citizen-initiated referendum.
How on Earth did a small, determined group of residents go to battle with a giant multinational corporation and a Wall Street investment firm… and win in a landslide?!
Back in February, Edison Mayor Tom Lankey unveiled the proposal that was apparently in the works for months: The township would sign off on a 40-year, $811 million contract. Initial reports stressed that the upfront payment would help pay for new facilities, including a $40 million community center. But those are exactly the kinds of promises water privatizers like to make; residents are left to find out the hard way that’s not the way it works out.
There was instant community opposition to the proposal. Residents packed public meetings demanding to know when the deal had been negotiated, why they weren’t informed about the process, and why in the world anyone would take these companies at their word. Just a few miles north, the city of Bayonne has been saddled with a nightmarish long-term contract with the same two companies.
We knew there was a way to give the public a voice. Thanks to a state law, residents in some New Jersey towns can gather petitions that require their elected officials to consider a new ordinance; either the town council passes the ordinance outright, or it goes to the voters to decide in an election. Our initiative posed a simple question: Should Edison control its own water and sewer system?
We hit the streets to collect enough names to put the issue on the political agenda for the town. Within a month, our organizers, volunteers, interns and community members collected over 5,000 signatures.
Then, Edison residents started hearing about a mysterious group that was going around calling themselves the Edison Utility Improvement Program. That official-sounding name was a ruse, though; we filed a public records request and discovered that this was a campaign paid for by Suez to sow confusion and mistrust in the community.
It backfired spectacularly. Even Mayor Lankey, a champion of the Suez deal, came out and forcefully denounced the bogus campaign.
Nonetheless, in July Edison’s Township Council decided, in a 4-3 vote, to not adopt the ordinance immediately. That put this question to the voters on a special election ballot. And that’s when the next phase began.
The key to this election was turnout. We already knew that the more voters learned about the deal, the more they were likely to oppose it. We needed them to know that voting ‘yes’ for public control would preempt the privatization effort, and we had to do the hard work to get them to vote by mail or show up in person on election day — phone banks, text campaigns, and good ol’ fashioned knocking on doors.
By the time election day rolled around, homemade VOTE YES signs were popping on lawns and intersections all over town. Suez made one last push, sending VOTE NO advertising trucks all over town, dozens of door-knockers, and even Suez employees. In the end, the companies spent a staggering $119,000 to swing votes their way– that adds up to about $73 per vote. By comparison, Food & Water Action spent about $2,000 encouraging Edison to vote “yes.”
The Big Picture
Edison is just the third municipality in the country to outright ban water privatization, bringing their water and sewer systems under public control. Until now, only Baltimore, Maryland and Northampton, Massachusetts have taken this step.
But this win is bigger than that. Edison is the first community in the country with privatized water to go to the ballot to change the law to require public control. The community is re-municipalizing its water system by popular referendum. This is democracy in action.
And better yet—voter turnout was remarkably high for a special election in September. Over 10,000 votes were cast, for a turnout of about 18 percent. As one state politics site pointed out, that was almost as many voters who turned out for a special election in 2013 for a U.S. Senate seat. It turns out that water can be a winner at the ballot box.
Of course, we must think big when it comes to improving access to safe, clean and affordable public water. That’s why we’re pushing elected officials to support the WATER Act, which would provide the federal funding to help other communities bring their water into public hands, replace lead service lines, repair outdated infrastructure and create a truly 21st century water system across the country.
Will you celebrate Edison’s win with us by telling your congressperson to co-sponsor the WATER Act?