How Recology will attack the garbage initiative

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We got an interesting call June 5 from a polling company. These folks typically ask if any member of the household works for the news media, and we have to figure out whether to lie and hear the questions or tell the truth and save 20 minutes. This time, the caller didn’t bother. So we agreed to answer “a few questions about the upcoming mayor’s race.”

Except the questions weren’t about the mayor’s race at all. They were about the proposal to mandate competitive bidding in the city’s garbage contract. And the poll, which was clearly testing different pro and con arguments, gave a good sense of how Recology, which holds the current monopoly, will try to frame the issues.

For starters, the pollster kept saying -- without any evidence -- that the proposal was the work of Waste Management Inc., a giant national garbage company. Among the arguments he presented: “This initiative is pushed by WMI, which puts profits ahead of customer service.” The pollster also charged that WMI had broken environmental laws and had a bad labor record.

Among the other arguments: “San Francisco should stick with a home-grown company that has done a good job.”

“The recycling system works.”

“A multinational Houston-based conglomerate wants to take over San Francisco’s recycling program.”

“Workers would lose their jobs.”

“Garbage rates would go up, and recycling would go down.”

“Politicians would have control over your garbage rates.”

That’s a nice snapshot of the campaign we’re going to see in the fall -- and it’s utter bullshit.

The initiative is the work of retired Judge Quentin Kopp, Potrero Hill activist Tony Kelly and a few others. And it’s all about bringing competitive bidding to the city’s garbage contract. Waste Management Inc. has zero involvement.

“They haven’t give us a dime,” Kelly told me. “Nobody from Waste Management was involved in any way in our meetings or discussions. This isn’t about Waste Management Inc.; this has to do with the city and competitive bidding.”

In fact, the original idea came from the board’s budget analyst, Harvey Rose.

David Tucker, Waste Management’s community and public relations director, was happy to go on the record and “let the world know that WM has not contributed any funding to this effort.”

“While it would be nice to be able to compete in San Francisco, the truth is that our focus is on the city’s landfill disposal and facilitation agreements,” Tucker said, referring to the battle that WM has been waging for several years now to have a fair chance at being selected as the company that disposes San Francisco’s trash in a landfill outside city limits. (Right now, WM disposes the city’s trash at its Altamont Landfill near Livermore, and Recology hauls the city’s trash across the Bay Bridge to Livermore. But the city’s Department of Environment has tentatively awarded the landfill disposal AND the facilitation (which refers to transporting the trash) to Recology, essentially giving them a monopoly over the city’s entire waste stream, starting in 2016.)

Kelly told us he has nothing against Recology: “If Recology wins the competitive bid for the next century, it’s fine with me.”

Fine with us, too -- and the odds are that’s exactly what will happen. The initiative states clearly that the bids have to include zero waste goals and worker protections -- and the city already gives preference to locally owned companies. (You can read the text here (pdf)).

But in the process, Recology will have to accept better controls on rates -- and will no doubt have to pay a franchise fee. So the city will get a better deal.

Recology knows that if the question on the ballot is framed as whether the garbage contract should be up for competitive bidding, about 90 percent of the voters will say yes. So the only way to block this initiative is to muddy the waters and make it about another company that has no role in the campaign.

Recology’s got a sweet deal, a no-bid $220 million deal that dates back to the 1930s. The company wants to protect it -- and apparently is prepared to use whatever misinformation is necessary to do that.

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