Gonzo journalism heads west: ARMA update

It’s not always the case that messy public spats get resolved into neat little packages, tied up with a bow. So it’s a pleasure to be able to write that this magazine’s recent argument with the Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA) over recycling fees has attained some sort of closure. Before I describe our findings from ARMA’s recent annual reports — which substantiate our earlier claims and analysis — a little context is required.
In an article in our June/July edition, legal columnist Adam Chamberlain raised questions about the constitutionality of fees imposed by stewardship organizations to fund their operations and the recycling of such things as e-waste. He used ARMA to illustrate his point, suggesting that new fees pertaining to such things as old TV monitors were devised around the time the organization’s e-waste program was experiencing a cash crunch.
This triggered a letter from ARMA that said the insinuation was unsubstantiated. We printed the letter in the August/September edition, along with a long editor’s reply from me in which, after some sleuthing, I presented evidence from ARMA publications that the organization’s e-waste program must have had cashflow problems in early 2004 (when it was processing e-waste but had not yet received advance disposal fees). It’s a bit of a “no no” in stewardship schemes to use levies collected for the recycling of one material to fund the recycling of another. This is something ARMA stated on its own website it would not do.
After presenting my evidence, I offered ARMA a full page in our magazine in the Up Front section to provide an accounting to readers. ARMA declined this offer, which is a pity since subsequent events showed the organization could have cleared things up and ended what I’ll call a “communications wrangle” simply by pointing to the fine print of its own recent annual reports.
Anyway, the Recycling Council of Alberta and The Composting Council of Canada held a joint conference at Chateau Lake Louise (October 12-14) and I attended in order to (a) pose my questions directly to the ARMA folks who I new would be in attendance and (b) remind them that I don’t have horns.
The missing number
At a product stewardship session I asked ARMA lawyer Rob Seidel whether monies collected under ARMA’s tire stewardship program were used to help the e-waste program when it was in start-up mode. Seidel answered my rather blunt question by saying that ARMA’s annual reports contain an entry that shows such a transaction. He subsequently mailed me ARMA’s annual reports from the past two years and, over the phone, guided me to the precise number, which is $344,484. It first appears near the back of the 2003-2004 report in the auditor’s statement as “Deferred charges.” The number falls off the books in the 2004-2005 annual report after being repaid to the tire program. The e-waste program took on bank indebtedness of $1.952 million, and this was subsequently paid off from e-waste levies.
Effectively, revelation of the $344,484 number puts an end to the matter, and it’s all water under the bridge now.
But I’d like to note that in case some observers think I relish “gotcha” moments in public meetings, they’d be surprised to learn how much I hate that kind of thing. My vision is that we should be able to debate our professional issues tenaciously, and still go out for a beer afterwards (which is exactly what happened at the conference). Not to be preachy, but I think ARMA learned something from this about the risk of burying certain data in the fine print of annual reports and not mentioning it to journalists who ask pointed questions, just as I learned a thing or two about the importance of maintaining a collegial tone when debating policy matters with people with whom one is going to interact for a long time to come.
Now it’s onward and upward, which I imagine is good news for certain readers who may regard all this as a tempest in a teapot. In the forthcoming December/January edition of our magazine, I’m running a long-ish letter from a landfill operator who’s sick of the whole issue. (See the letter and my reply on pages 58-59.) Also, I’ll get our IT department to some recent ARMA documents relating to vendor qualification and other matters at this website. (Look under the “Posted Documents” button.)
Postscript: Actually, I do have horns. If you don’t always see them, it’s because they’re retractable.