Now that the Boston Globe is making a commitment to suburban news coverage, and particularly in Newton, maybe they can focus some of their efforts on abuses of mayoral power that have skirted state law. An example was the roll-out of the Big Belly trash collection system on city properties.
Back in 2016, Mayor Setti Warren excitedly announced the program. Here’s a summary from Patch:
Throughout April and May, the city installed 340 units in 170 locations across Newton. Solar-powered and utilizing cloud technology, the units come equipped with compacting and sensing technology.
A system dashboard collects monitoring, routing information and real-time and historical data from each unit to optimize the collection process. According to the Newton city website, this data helps reduce collection frequency by up to 80 percent on average.
The Department of Parks and Recreation entered into a partnership with Bigbelly after studying which locations had the highest volume of waste collection.
Well, one problem was that the number of receptacles was reduced considerably from the green and blue plastic bins which had been in place. On that front, the Tab reported, “Ward 7 Councilor at-large Ruthanne Fuller said the council, the Conservation Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission ‘were a little blindsided on this.’” But the flaws in the process went beyond being blindsided abut the details of the roll-out.
The more serious problem was that the firm that was given the contract to provide the Big Belly trash dispensers was also the firm that had done the study advising the city on how many and where the machines should be located. In general, state law prohibits a municipality from hiring a firm to do the study and design phases of a public project and then have that same firm carry out the project. Why? Because there is a clear potential conflict of interest. The Globe might want to investigate this matter with the State Auditor. The Globe might want to investigate, also, how many other Massachusetts cities and towns entered into a similar no-bid, conflicted arrangement.
The summary of the program on the city’s website is a public relations advertisement for the Big Belly company:
Bigbelly is a smart waste and recycling system designed for public spaces. Intelligent waste units on the street communicate their real-time status to a cloud-based system dashboard. The system is solar-powered and equipped with rubbish-compacting and sensing technologies. It gathers, consolidates and analyzes data from the smart collection stations to provide real-time waste fleet status into a system dashboard. It delivers monitoring, routing information, and the ability to analyze real-time and historical data.
Adoption of the Bigbelly System promotes a consistent, sustainable, and connected culture catered to pedestrians. While beautifying public spaces, it also maximizes waste management operational efficiency through reduced collection frequency up to 80% on average. The System enables Cities to achieve major environmental goals through complete waste containment and measurable recycling diversion metrics.
The company further uses their Newton experience as a case study in their promotional materials. They assert that there was an increase in recyclables captured. Well, for months, the recycling bins were emptied into the exact same DPW dump trucks as the regular trash. Who knows how accurate their assertions are? And who gave authorization for the use of the City of Newton’s website and name for commercial purposes?
So now the units have been in place for three years. Has there been any analysis as to whether the system has, in fact, had “a positive impact on the environment, on our bottom line, and help enhance the quality of life throughout the City?” Or is the system just an annuity for the Big Belly company, providing monthly revenues with no review as to the program’s efficacy?
It’s time for a post-audit by the former city councilor (now Mayor) and/or the Council itself. Meanwhile, Boston Globe, take a deeper look. You have the resources to study the law, the documents, the invoices, and other aspects of this big fat deal, here and throughout the state.