One interesting local victory on Tuesday was a vote by the citizens of Baltimore to amend the city’s charter to prohibit the privatization of their water and sewer system.

In a rare instance of progressive preemption, the city’s voters told private water corporations to leave them alone.

“Private corporations have been circling Baltimore for years, ramping up efforts to pitch a privatization effort,” said Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food and Water Watch and a member of the coalition that pressed for the charter change. “Baltimore has an aging infrastructure and is under pressure from the EPA to upgrade our system.”

Corporate vultures like water conglomerates Veolia, American Water, and Suez were lobbying to take over the system, with Suez and its Wall Street partner KKR proposing a 50-year lease.

Baltimore City Council president Bernard “Jack” Young had seen enough. He led a city effort to amend the charter. “He wanted to shut the door on this conversation so the city could work to address our water issues without the background static of corporate privatization,” said Eckel.

The city council voted unanimously to amend the charter to protect public ownership, sending the measure to the city’s voters for approval. In August, Young told the Baltimore Sun, “I have always been a proponent of retaining our city’s assets, which is why I am completely opposed to the privatization of Baltimore’s water system. Access to clean and affordable water should be looked at as a basic right.”

Other municipalities that have leased their water assets to private giants like Suez have seen negative results. Bayonne, N.J. leased its system and saw water rates rise 28 percent in the first four years, despite promises of a rate freeze.

In 2016, the city of Northampton, Massachusetts passed legislation to prohibit sale of its water infrastructure. But the Baltimore action was the first example of a city changing its charter to protect public ownership.

The Baltimore action has drawn attention from other cities. “We just talked to leaders in Pittsburgh about a similar law change,” said Eckel. “They’ve been dealing with the disastrous impacts of privatization after a contract with Veolia that ended in 2015.”

“Now that privatization is out of the picture,” observed Eckel, “Baltimoreans can work with our elected officials to improve the accountability and affordability of our water system and ensure every person in our city has access to safe water at a price they can afford.”

Many states have passed corporate-initiated preemptive laws to ban local living wage ordinances, taxes on sodas, and require super-majority votes to raise taxes.  The Baltimore charter change is an example of a progressive preemption to protect public assets. The possibilities are limitless.

Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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