The local lawn-care lobby is pulling out all the stops in a nasty campaign to prevent council from passing a bylaw that would restrict the use of pesticides in the city.The blitz has already featured a controversial radio ad campaign that claims the board of health's proposal to ban cosmetic use of garden chemicals will leave citizens vulnerable to the dreaded West Nile virus. Now constituents of at least one councillor who supports the bylaw are apparently receiving phone calls from the so-called Toronto Environmental Coalition (in fact a pesticide biz front) alleging that the stand their political reps are taking will cost city residents hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax hikes and reduced real estate values.
"It's absolutely disgusting," said councillor Jane Pitfield, a health board member who's been actively promoting the legislation that will go to council for debate next week. Pitfield has also received a note on TEC letterhead advising her that the coalition of 12 lawn care companies will be canvassing against her during the municipal election campaign this fall. "Every homeowner in Ward 26 (Don Valley West) will be informed of your support of the ban," the memo warns.
"It's a smear campaign and outright harassment," Pitfield maintained. But she noted that constituents targeted by TEC's calls have generally been supportive of her position. "What most of them are telling me is that they'd never put poison on their lawns, and they congratulate me for doing this," said the councillor, who indignantly returned a "gift" basket filled with garden tools and pro-pesticide propaganda delivered to her office recently by a "municipal affairs consultant."
Indeed, lobbyists - including a representative of the firm headed by the notorious Jeff Lyons of MFP inquiry fame - have been spreading like crab grass at City Hall this week in an 11th-hour attempt to round up opposition to the bylaw. "It is an election year," Pitfield said, a reference to Lyons's reputation for fundraising on behalf of council candidates sympathetic to his causes. She suggested the bylaw's fate "hinges on how much money is going to come" for re-election campaigns.
Councillor Joe Mihevc, the health board chair, agreed. And he predicted that next week's vote will be an extremely close one. "I think it's going to be a nail-biter one way or the other," he said. "I don't understand why," council's leading health advocate added. "The bylaw is straightforward. It's not a ban, as these people are saying. It's simply trying to reduce the cosmetic use of chemicals. If you have allergies you can use pesticides to control the weeds. If you have an infestation of a particular kind of grub you can use the appropriate agent. But the lawn-care industry wants zero controls.'
Pitfield blasted the TEC radio spots for undermining the city's efforts to recover from the recent SARS crisis. "Here we are, trying to reassure Toronto residents and the international community that this is a healthy, safe tourism destination, and we've got these people putting out ads that say anyone who comes here risks getting West Nile virus," she said. "I understand some of the radio ads have reached New York state, where many Americans now think Toronto has a serious West Nile problem."
Pitfield asked Mayor Mel Lastman to publicly condemn the ads but got no response to her request. "He doesn't have the appetite to stand up and do the right thing," she said. That may be because Lastman is opposed to the bylaw Pitfield supports. The mayor recently said he was afraid a pesticide ban would lead to the uncontrolled growth of weeds throughout the city.
"People trip on weeds and people fall on weeds and people get hurt by weeds," Lastman declared. "If it (the bylaw) is going to kill people, I'm concerned." It sounds to me like Lastman was tripping on something more than weeds. And it could be that councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong went along for the ride. He called the pesticide bylaw "council's version of the gun registry."
Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby also opposes the bylaw. "I think it is ill-conceived,' she said. Luby claimed that the vast majority of her Etobicoke constituents - including two major golf courses and residents with "huge" properties - "are not happy with this bylaw."
This will be music to the ears of the Toronto Environmental Coalition, which was "extremely disappointed that local radio stations would respond to political pressure (from the board of health) and pull an ad that is factually correct. Our message is simple," said coalition spokesperson Lorraine Van Hasstrecht, who denied her group is targeting Pitfield. "This bylaw will increase taxes, decrease property values, remove the rights of homeowners to choose how they care for their properties and increase mosquitoes and other pests."
Mihevc called the communique "garbage." He said mosquito control products aren't included in the bylaw's regulations. Pitfield said TEC's "misinformation" only makes her more determined to overcome the pro-pesticide forces.
"They are pompous, they are arrogant and they are completely inflexible," she argued. "We may not be successful next week, but we will be eventually. The board of health always wins in the end, because it always acts in the best interests of public health."
This battle may be far from over.