Will Kopp's competitive bidding initiative derail Recology’s train to Yuba?

Luke Thomas

Sponsors of an initiative to require competitive bidding on all aspects of the city's multi-million-dollar garbage services say they plan to deliver their initiative petitions to the Department of Elections this afternoon. The petitions contain 12,000 signatures, far more than the 7,000-8,000 required, effectively signalling that, even after the city weeds out non-valid signatures, the initiative will qualify for the June 2012 election.

The move threatens to give the Board a political migraine, since the Board is set to vote July 26 on a Department of Environment resolution to expand Recology (formerly Norcal Waste System, Inc)’s monopoly on San Francisco's garbage and recycling services.

In fact, the DoE resolution contains two separate agreements: a $112 million long-term landfill disposal agreement that was competitively bid, and a facilitation agreement that governs how waste is transported to the landfill and that was not competitively bid. As such, the city's facilitation agreement is already the subject of a lawsuit that Waste Management Inc. filed in San Francisco Superior Court last week.

Sponsors of the competitive bidding ordinance, which include retired judge Quentin Kopp, community activist Tony Kelly and Waste Solutions CEO David Gavrich,believe the Board should delay voting on the landfill disposal and facilititation agreements until next summer, after voters have had a chance to weigh in on the bigger question of whether folks want competitive bidding on all the city's garbage-related services, which are worth a quarter of a billion, each year. "

"It would be disrespectful to voters to accept a resolution while an initiative is pending," Kopp stated.

“It would make sense if they severe the landfill disposal and facilitation agreements into two files,” Kelly added, referring to how the two separate agreements are currently lumped into one item on the Board’s July 26 agenda, under the section titled “recommendations of the Budget and Finance sub-committee.”

How the deal got filed in the B&F sub-committee’s recommended section is another story unto itself: Last Wednesday, after Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and Jane Kim, who sit on the Board's Budget and Finance sub-committee, voted to send the deal to the Board with no recommendation, (a vote that suggested that they had some concerns with the deal) and after members of the public who came to testify about the item had left,  Mirkarimi asked to rescind the landfill vote.

“I think there was some misunderstanding a little bit in wrapping up the landfill agreements with Recology, “ Mirkarimi said, as he asked for the vote to be rescinded, “so we can accurately reflect some of the sentiments being articulated here.”
“I think we just learned some things on the fly,” Mirkarimi stated, as he and Kim joined committee chair Sup. Carmen Chu, one of the Board's more conservative members, in sending the deal to the full Board “with recommendation.”

The Guardian learned of the vote switcheroo, after the DoE, which is apparently anxious to see the Recology agreements move forward, contacted us to say that our blog post about the Budget and Finance sub-committee, incorrectly stated that Mirkarimi and Kim had not given the deal their unmitigated thumbs-up. (The Guardian has since amended its blog post to accurately reflect what happened at the meeting, after this reporter and most members of the public, except the Chamber of Commerce's Jim Lazarus, who supports the Recology agreements, had left the Board's Chambers.)

Asked about the last-minute move to amend the vote Kelly said, “It was Ross at his Rossest.”

And in many ways, Mirkarimi’s move to rescind made sense: neither he nor Kim had registered any problems with the landfill disposal and facilitation agreements during the committee hearing, though a number of seemingly valid concerns were raised, including the observation by Yuba County supervisor Roger Abe that Yuba County is considering raising its host fees at Recology’’s Ostrom Road landfill in Wheatland from $4.40 a ton to $20- $30 a ton. If Yuba County does raise itsw fees, the move could wipe out the estimated $100 million in savings that DoE claims Recology’s proposal represents for San Francisco ratepayers. According to Abe, Yuba’s fees have not been raised for 14 years, and his county, which is one of the poorest in California, could use the additional income, especially if it is going to see its local landfill fill up faster than anticipated, thanks to San Francisco sending up to 5 million tons of trash over a 10-year period.

To be fair, Mirkarimi did warn that it would be unwise to dismiss Yuba County's concerns , but he countered that any county can raise its fees. And DoE suggested that it was unlikely that Yuba County can raise its fees excessively, because those same fees would have to be paid by the other municipalities that use the Ostrom ROad dump, most of which are small towns that can't afford to pay as much as relatively prosperous Bay Area cities like San Francicso.

Instead, Mirkarimi and Kim reserved most of their concerns for the bigger question of whether San Francisco ratepayers are best served by the city’s continuing lack of competitive bidding and franchise fee requirements on San Francisco’s remaining $225-million-a-year garbage collection related services--concerns that seem to bring us back full circle to Kopp and Kelly's competitive bidding ordinance, which they had hoped to qualifty for

Asked how many supervisors he thought will stand up tomorrow and dig into the details of the DoE agreements and how they contradict with the requirements of the Kopp-Kelly-Gavrich competing bidding initiative, Kelly said, "Two."

If so, that's not likely to derail Recology's train to Yuba, especially given that Mayor Ed Lee, who holds veto power over any item that less than eight supervisors support or oppose, told the Guardian in February that he believes Recology had earned its privilege.

But so far the City Attorney's Office is remaining mum about the potential impact of WM's lawsuit on Recology's train to Yuba County, a silence that will give the Board the political cover they apparently so desperately need, if they vote tomorrow to haul San Francisco's trash to Yuba County by rail, an arrangement that won't start until after the city's current contract at Waste Management's Altamont landfill expires, something that is not anticipated to happen until 2015, based on the city's current diversion rates.