In the Oct. 4th, 2011 Pipeline, I’d written about the new Free Green Cans, which coincidentally appeared on the sidewalks of Wicker Park on the very same week that another pedestrian right-of-way obstruction, A-Frame sandwich board signs, were receiving a new $500 fine effective September 30, 2011.
A local business owner had text-ed me a photo of Steve Holland, CEO of the privately-held Free Green Can company, standing alongside 1st Ward Ald. ‘Proco’ Joe Moreno during a Monday, Sept. 26, 2011 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Milwaukee/Damen/North intersection.
I ended up not running the ribbon-cutting photo. As unique as Free Green Can’s advertising-supported business model seemed in the press release, the trash cans and ‘recycling kiosks’, supported by advertising revenue rather than taxpayer dollars, didn’t warrant a larger story in my opinion. For my part I was more steamed up about the A-frame sandwich board signs used by small business owners and couldn’t help but wonder if there were a relationship between the two events occurring simultaneously.
For those who desired more information on the Free Green Cans, I’d linked to this in-depth piece by Chicago Journal’s Ian Fullerton, headlined, “Chicago Park District and Free Green Can Buck the Public-Private Line.”
Flash forward five months. It’s the height of an election season. Just like in relationships which sometimes go sour when the unique qualities that first attract you to a person prove to be the same ones that end up eventually detracting you, the “Public-Private” line that Free Green Can had hoped to buck has more like buckled onto itself.
CBS’s Jay Levine aired an expose on the Free Green Cans, which, it turns out, did not have the correct permits to be installed and were in violation of “one of the oldest no-no’s in politics: no campaign signs on public property.” After an investigation conducted by the city’s Office of Inspector General, the Free Green Cans have been pulled from sidewalks.
Ald. Moreno weighed in on the cans on his HuffPost blog a few days ago. “Since September, the feedback I’ve received about these cans has been overwhelmingly positive. Any time there was graffiti on one of these cans, it was gone within 24 hours. More importantly, I’ve never seen these cans overflow and 1st Ward residents, community groups and SSAs are all in favor of expanding the program,” he wrote.
I too believe that the cans, which I’ve never seen overflow, either, are deserving of the positive feedback that they’ve received. The cans were a refreshing addition to the green topped recycling cans funded by the city’s Special Service Area District #33 that rolled out in 2009. It is not uncommon to see coffee cups or bottles sticking out of the tops of the taxpayer-funded SSA #33 sponsored cans. The SSA #33, or “WPB,” contracts with vendor Cleanslate to maintain the green-topped cans, among other tasks that Cleanslate’s transitional workers perform, like supplemental street cleaning, sidewalk salting, and snow removal.
Over the past few months, I’ve used the Free Green Cans on a frequent basis. I’m not alone. Per this Our Urban Times report, 400 tons of trash have been processed since the pilot program began, with 20 cans in Wicker Park (locations here). Outside of the neighborhood, there’s an entire fleet of Free Green Cans along the Lakefront bike path, in Wrigleyville, and Chicago Park district parks, per the Chicago Journal story.
When news of the can investigation broke on CBS this past week, I’d solicited this piece from Anne Shaw, a 1st Ward committee(wo)man candidate, since she had some strong opinions on the Free Green Cans. Ronda Locke, who works for Ald. Moreno in the 1st Ward office, then wrote to me with concerns about Shaw’s piece. I then gave Ronda the same opportunity I’d extended to Shaw. Here, Ronda expresses her opinion on the Free Green Cans.
Personally, I thought the cans were pretty cool until the CBS expose came out, and I realized that there were deeper issues at play.
For starters, with political advertising being banned on public property, the timing of the alderman using the cans to advertise his likeness (even if it was just for his ward office and not the committeeman race) during a hotly contested political race for committeeman makes me wonder if the other two 1st Ward Committeeman candidates, Anne Shaw, and Jesse Ruben Juarez, were given the opportunity to advertise on the highly visible cans, too.
Secondly, it was discovered that the cans did not have the correct permits, while, in contrast, the SSA #33 cans have permits, albeit as the result of two long years of meetings and committees and paperwork and debates amongst the volunteer SSA #33 Commissioners that meet once monthly to figure out how to spend the approx 0.5% of property tax dollars which sit in a slush fund that gets allocated to projects falling under five different committees. In the city of Chicago, there are 40 Special Service Area taxing districts, with budgets ranging from $10,000 to $2.7 million, per a FAQ sheet on this web page.
Thirdly, in direct contrast to Moreno’s Huffington Post blog, where he says that the SSAs are in favor of expanding the cans, the pipeline received a comment from an attendee of a public Feb. 7th, 2012 SSA #33 meeting. The comment appears at the bottom of this opinion post by Ronda Locke, “Ronda was present at a meeting with the trash can company on Feb 7th and knew SSA 33 did not approve the presentation give[n] by Free Green Cans specifically stating the permits were not in place. Where was the consultation as a sustainability consultant and was there a report back to the Alderman that SSA 33 was against the cans?”
We asked the alderman this question yesterday at the dedication of the honorary Joe Kopera Parkway sign.
The alderman responded not with an answer to the question, but instead with his thoughts on permits. “For two years they [Free Green Can] were trying to get permits… Well, actually they started trying three years ago, before me [as alderman].”
Moreno defended Free Green Can, while referencing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been known for saying that people need to think creatively and out of the box. “These are tough times,” Moreno said. “My biggest fear with the cans was that they would get stickers on them, graffiti, like on the post office boxes. They didn’t.”
I then asked the alderman, and Matt Bailey, who was at the ceremony, about the fact that the Free Green Can press release touts that no taxpayer money is used in the maintenance of the cans and that according to the Our Urban Times report, vendor Cleanslate was tasked with maintaining Wicker Park’s 20 Free Green Cans. Cleanslate, as previously mentioned, is supported through taxpayer funded SSA #33 contracts. In addition to the Wicker Park Bucktown SSA #33, Cleanlate enjoys contracts with a long list of city clients, including chamber of commerce branches in West Town, South Shore, Little Village, and Lincoln Park.
“[Free Green Can] had a separate contract with Cleanslate,” Bailey told me.
Fair enough, maybe. I mean, I guess someone will have to find out if part of the local Cleanslate’s worker duties were to service Wicker Park’s Free Green Trash Cans through a direct relationship with Free Green Can, rather than as an add-on to their existing SSA #33 supported duties, like maintaining the SSA’s green-topped cans. I didn’t see Free Green Can in this 2011 Cleanslate client list, but it’s possible their site hasn’t been updated.
And, what about the ads? Were they free? How much did it cost to advertise Moreno’s face on the cans?
Per Bailey, they “haven’t gotten the invoice yet,” so they are not sure how much the ad space on the cans featuring Moreno will cost them.
Bailey told me that there was no connection between the cans and the sandwich board signs. Moreno reminded me that sandwich boards are still permitted as long as they are inside of sidewalk cafes, per the Division Street Sidewalk Cafe Protocol Meeting last week.
On the walk home from the ceremony, I noticed that the Free Green Can at Milwaukee and Western that I’d enjoyed using had been removed. Prior to that can, I’d simply walked a few more feet onto the McDonald’s lot, and used their red trash bin, which is what I imagine other people waiting for the bus on that corner will now do.
I will miss using the Free Green Cans because they served a purpose, even if how they managed to get onto the streets remains a mystery. A promotion on the side of one can hoping to attract new advertisers reads, “Talk to Chicago,” and indeed the cans have spoken, perhaps saying Chicago politics as usual.
Alisa Hauser often uses the collective “we” when writing for the Pipeline, but to be perfectly clear, this Op-Ed post reflects her opinions on the Free Green Cans and not those of anyone else. Born in Flint, Michigan, Alisa has spent her entire life in the Midwest, from the suburbs of Chicago to the hills of southeastern Ohio, where she majored in Creative Writing-Poetry at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She’s lived in Wicker Park since 2005.