October 3, 2014

In explaining her decision to abstain on the “compromise” contract dividing Oakland’s trash disposal contract between national giant Waste Management and Oakland-based California Waste Solutions—most of it going to Waste Management—the Oakland Tribune said that Councilmember Desley Brooks called it a a dangerous precedent. “It shows Oakland that when people don't get their way and they have a lot of money, they can do whatever they want,” the newspaper quoted Ms. Brooks as saying. (“Oakland's $1 Billion Garbage Contract Goes Back To Waste ManagementOakland Tribune September 22, 2014)
Many Oakland residents might say that there’s no precedent there at all, but just the story of our city, where money gets its way more often than not, and big money gets the biggest share.

However, Ms. Brooks is on the right track. There is something new in City Council’s abrupt reversal of their earlier decision to cut Waste Management out of managing Oakland’s waste. Usually, big money likes to hide in the shadows, obscuring its involvement and making it look like everything is being done in the people’s interest and at our own initiative. In this instance, on the other hand, the main monied interest made little attempt to hide its tracks or disguise the nature of its actions. Maybe they think it doesn’t matter because they don’t believe there’s anything we can do about it. There is, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Meanwhile, what was it that big money Waste Management did not bother about hiding? We were the victim of a political mugging. I’ll tell you how, but it’s going to take a bit, because it’s a little complicated.

To start, Oakland’s longstanding waste disposal contract with Waste Management is due to expire at the end of June next year. Earlier this year, after an open bidding process to find out what companies were interested in disposing of Oakland’s trash for the next ten years, city staff recommended a ten-year renewal of Waste Management’s contract. However, the City Council rejected that recommendation and voted to reopen the bidding process.

California Waste Solutions, which was already handling a portion of Oakland’s recyclables, submitted a bid under the reopened bidding process. The City Council eventually awarded CWS the city’s entire waste disposal contract, theirs and the major portion Waste Management is currently operating, including all of the trash and greenery and recyclable pickup throughout the city (the brown, green, and gray rolling bins).

To say the least, the folks at Waste Management were not particularly pleased about losing a contract they apparently felt was theirs by divine right.
Saying they believed there were some legal irregularities in Council’s reopoening of the bidding process after Waste Management had been recommended the contract by city staff, Waste Management filed a lawsuit against the City and California Waste Solutions to overturn the Oakland/CWS contract. There it should have settled, in the courts deciding the legality or illegality of the Council’s actions. But as we quickly learned, the lawsuit-filing was simply the hook to hold Oakland in place while Waste Management—or someone on Waste Management’s payroll or with Waste Management’s economic interests at heart—launched, orchestrated, and financed a disinformation campaign designed to confuse Oakland public opinion while Waste Management was trying to force CWS out of the game.
There were, actually, legitimate concerns about CWS, about their ability to handle the entire Oakland waste disposal contract, in the proposed placement of their waste treatment facility in West Oakland, and in allegations of close personal and economic ties with certain Councilmembers.

Immediately after Council approved the CWS contract, for example several respected and longstanding West Oakland leaders—including former Oakland City Councilmember Nancy Nadel—raised environmental concerns about the proposed placement of CWS’ waste treatment plant on the grounds of the old Army Base in West Oakland. Those concerns might—or might not—have been worked out in mitigation negotiations with West Oakland leaders as we got closer to the actual building of the treatment plant and the beginning of operations. We’ll never know, because, of course, it never came to that.
That’s in part because someone—and the signs all point to Waste Management or someone doing business in Waste Management’s interest—muddled the issue by creating a fake online organization to raise the environmental criticisms from statements of deep concern to a prolonged shout, throwing out unsubstantiated and unverified criticisms of CWS and escalating those legitimate environmental concerns beyond the point of reconciliation.

The fake organization created called itself “Clean West Oakland Now,” and seems to have existed only in the ether of online. As far as I can tell, the “Clean West Oakland Now” Facebook site was opened on June 10th, right about the time—coincidentally—that Oakland was originally considering renewal of Waste Management’s contract. Most of the site’s posts involve that contract, eventually turning its attention to trying to get Oakland to negate the agreement with CWS by attacking CWS on a wide variety of fronts.
In a September 10 item, for example, “Clean West Oakland Now” posted three photos of a West Oakland house, along with the caption “This is soot covering the side of a house directly across the street from CWS' Pine Street facility. A perfect example of why allowing CWS to expand its operations is a problem for West Oakland.”

It’s difficult to see if there is actually more soot on the house in the posted picture than there is on any house in a semi-industrial area such as West Oakland, but more importantly, we have to take the “Clean West Oakland Now” site’s word that whatever soot is there came from the California Waste Solutions Pine Street facility. No documentation accompanies the post to show this to be the case.
Other posts by the “Clean West Oakland Now” Facebook site repeat that anti-CWS theme, with one of them on September 7th asserting that the city’s contract with CWS was “a decision that will result in more garbage diesel trucks, neighborhood litter, and air pollution (more trash = more smells) for West Oakland.”
Legitimate West Oakland environmental leaders were trying to find solutions to these possible problems.

On September 23rd, for example, Ms. Nadel posted a comment to “Clean West Oakland Now”’s Facebook page that “I think a potential partial solution is to form a [Joint Powers Authority] with san leandro and other cities perhaps, buy out WM for [the company’s] Davis St [waste treatment facility in San Leandro] and rehab it to the San Carlos type facility everyone thinks is great. There would be a tax sharing deal with cities involved with San Leandro getting a larger share. Every city doesn't need one of these.”

“Clean West Oakland Now”’s goal, on the other hand, appeared to be to get the city to vacate the CWS contract altogether.

It does not appear that Ms. Nadel is affiliated in any way with “Clean West Oakland Now” other than, like several other individuals, to post comments or suggestions to their Facebook page. In fact, “Clean West Oakland Now” gives no indication whatsoever as to who is leaders or members are.   

On its “Clean West Oakland Now” Facebook page, the group identifies itself only as “a group of citizens who are sick of West Oakland being dumped on.” There is no way listed to contact the group except by posting to the page, no telephone number, email address, or street address.
The group’s website is even more obscure about the organization’s origins, if possible, where it doesn’t even list its concern for West Oakland.
Meanwhile, at the same time Clean West Oakland Now—whoever he or she is or they are—was pretending to be a real organization and attacking the Oakland-CWS contract from the anonymity of the web, Waste Management was putting together a petition campaign to put a measure on the ballot to try to overturn that contract. And from various and multiple sources, the petition gatherers were using decidedly deceptive tactics to try to get Oakland residents to sign.

According to the East Bay Express, for example, “Almost as soon as Waste Management's ballot drive began [in Oakland], city officials and other observers accused the hired signature gatherers of spreading false information. Oakland City Council President Pat Kernighan sent me photos of two petition gatherers with wildly inaccurate signs. One read, ‘Please Sign to Stop the City from Increasing YOUR Garbage Fees!’ which was especially false considering the fact that Waste Management's original proposal called for higher rate increases than CWS's plan. The second sign said: ‘STOP Oakland's New 50% TAX Increase For Waste Removal,’ followed by ‘No Recycling Tax - No Garbage Tax - No Landfill Tax.’ Those claims were also false because the new garbage contract has no provision for raising taxes.” (“The Problem With Paid PetitionsEast Bay Express September 24, 2014)
There are indications that none of these tactics—the false organization, the false claims, even Waste Management’s lawsuit against the city and CWS—would have worked. Public opinion seemed to be against Waste Management, and there was a big pushback on the deceptive tactics of the petition campaign, including a counter-campaign to get people to petition the Oakland City Clerk to get their names taken off the petitions on the grounds they had been deceived. From all appearances the Oakland City Council appeared to be standing firm, with only Councilmember Noel Gallo changing his mind on the original decision to take the contract away from Waste Management.

But then came the surprising announcement by Mayor Jean Quan that a “compromise” had been reached giving most of that waste disposal contract back to Waste Management, with only the recycling portion retained by CWS. City Council quickly ratified the agreement, but it was clear that many of them did so reluctantly, and only because they felt they had no other choice.
Largely lost in the buzz over the proposed waste disposal contract “compromise” was the fact that CWS was “voluntarily” giving up the entire contract in return for a small piece of the action. But if one read them carefully, news articles at the time of the “compromise” gave some insight as to possible reasons why.
In the Tribune article “Oakland Company Is Not Bitter About City’s Tentative Plan With Waste Management,” CWS officials said they agreed to the compromise because they wanted to help Oakland.

"We realized Waste Management would not let up on tactics and campaigns to hurt the city of Oakland and the city sought for the possibility of a compromise and solution," the Tribune quoted CWS Chief Operating Officer Joel Corona as saying. "What the city wanted was CWS and a smooth transition. It didn't want lawsuits, special election, and a referendum based on false information."

But in the Chronicle article “Oakland Council Gives Garbage Contract Back To 'Bully’ Company,” the explanation was just the opposite. According to the Chronicle, “members of the [Oakland City] council said Waste Management’s lawsuits and petitions made it impossible for California Waste Solutions to get loans needed to build the infrastructure to do the job.”

Either way—political pressure was put on the City of Oakland by Waste Management to force CWS to compromise, or financial pressure was put on CWS by Waste Management to force the City of Oakland to compromise, or both simultaneously, perhaps—the result was that the Waste Management tactics forced the City to accept a waste disposal contract it did not want—the contract with Waste Management—by forcing the winning contractor, CWS, out of the game for the entire contract it had already received.

That, my friends, is the textbook definition of a political mugging.

It means at the very least that we’re stuck with the unwanted Waste Management contract until 2025, when the contract runs out. Even if someone files a lawsuit against this “compromise” contract, we can’t force California Waste Solutions to take on a job it has now turned down. And it’s hard to see how the situation will change ten years from now, since what waste management company will be able to beat out Waste Management for the next Oakland contract under such circumstances? For that matter, what company would even want to try any more?

So does that mean the citizens of Oakland are stuck with Waste Management forever?

Well, not necessarily.

If a private company is not able to buck Waste Management and win our city’s waste disposal contract, maybe Oakland should do it ourselves.

Perhaps the time has come for Oakland to take the next step and begin the process of taking over the management and operation of our own waste disposal service when the Waste Management contract runs out in ten years. Other cities do it…many, many other cities. It’s either that or be consigned to the bottom of Waste Management’s garbage heap for the rest of our lives, stuck with whatever terms and rate increases they feel they can get away with imposing upon us because there’s no credible opposition.

Yeah, I know that’s a big concept, and a lot to take in, and enough for now. Give it some thought, neighbors, and let’s talk more, after the election is over. There’s plenty of time.