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Who Do We Blame For Oakland's Garbage Service?

July 26, 2015

There are many things to criticize the Oakland City Council about, both collectively and individually. Pick a number and wait in a long line.

However, the recent, sudden, dramatic increase in City of Oakland waste disposal rates is not one of those times. Oakland City Council is not the main culprit here, and may not have any culpability at all. Though its both tempting and easy to go after the Council on this issue—they’re such an easy target, after all, and they were the ones who approved the waste disposal contract—the major blame in this case lies elsewhere.

Waste disposal rates in the city took a huge jump on the first of July when the new contract with Oakland’s longtime garbage company—Texas-based national corporation Waste Management—kicked in.

The rate increase had been expected by anyone who paid attention when the the contract was signed between the City and Waste Management last fall. It was widely reported in the media, and Councilmembers debated the proposed increase at length.

But there were also some nasty surprises hidden in the fine details of the contract that really ticked many citizens and property owners off. Among them was the ending of the longtime senior citizen discount, a financial penalty if apartment dwellers or owners didn’t pull those big garbage bins out to the curb themselves for pickup every week but required Waste Management workers to do it, and an odd new fee schedule that encouraged restaurants to throw their food waste into the regular trash rather than use the environmentally-friendly, and city-preferred, compost service.

All of these various add-ons amounted to a hefty jump in waste disposal fees in the city, both for businesses and citizens, well above and beyond what even the most attentive had been led to believe. It is estimated that under the new contract restaurant owners alone, for example, could see their rates rise as much as $10,000 a year.

Once the details of the new garbage bills became apparent as the new contract with Waste Management began, Oakland business and property owners and citizens immediately took their anger out on the City Council, holding demonstrations, crowding Council meetings, accusing Councilmembers of agreeing to a “bad deal” with Waste Management, and demanding that they do something to mitigate the damage.

“Bad deal,” definitely. But forgotten in all the angry words was that actually, the Oakland City Council did its best to drop the city’s long-term relationship with Waste Management when the new waste disposal contract was being negotiated last year.

A brief bit of history, for those who missed it, or don’t remember that far back.

Oakland’s contract with Waste Management for garbage collection in the city was up for renewal this July, and so renewal deliberations took place last year. Often when Oakland has a long term service agreement with a corporate entity, it tends to simply roll over the deal into succeeding new contracts without much fuss or deliberation. A good example of this would be Oakland’s contract relationship with A&B Company of East Oakland for vehicle towing services. That contract has been renewed, how many times? I don’t know, since the Council never seems to seriously consider any other provider. And up until last year, that was the same with the City’s waste disposal contract.

But unexpectedly, the City Council took a distinctly different turn last year, voting to award the new contract to Bay Area-based California Waste Solutions rather than to Waste Management after complaining that Waste Management’s proposed fee increase was going to hit Oakland residents and businesses too hard.

That should have ended it, since a contract is a contract, and city’s are supposed to be able to award them to whomsoever they want.

But rather than accepting that fact, Waste Management acted as if the Oakland contract belonged to them, and began a rearguard fight to overturn the City Council’s decision. Oakland Post editor Ken Epstein described it as a campaign of “dirty tricks” and if anything, he understated the case.

Waste Management filed lawsuits against both the City of Oakland and California Waste Solutions, contending that the new contract was improperly awarded. No-one knows whether Waste Management would have prevailed in court, but filing the lawsuits had the effect of informing both Oakland and CWS that if they kept their contract agreement, they would face continuing legal fees that would drain their finances.

At around the same time the lawsuits were being filed, Waste Management began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to overturn the CWS contract. Citizens don’t have actually the power to vacate a legal City contract by ballot initiative, which the folks at Waste Management almost certainly knew. The purpose for the ballot initiative signature campaign was almost certainly to act as a vehicle for public attacks against CWS and the CWS contract, and to turn Oakland public opinion against both. In addition, it was a signal to the City of Oakland that it would be faced with spending a good deal of money trying to defend the CWS deal during a ballot fight, something Oakland could not afford.

The lawsuits and the ballot initiative were directly attributable to Waste Management. But there was another action that took place simultaneously which did not carry the Texas company’s name, but had Waste Management’s fingerprints all over it. Around the time the new waste disposal contract was being considered at the beginning of last year, a website suddenly sprang up on the internet under the name “Clean West Oakland Now” and began making various charges against CWS. That included a particular assertion that CWS would pollute West Oakland’s air when it opened its planned new waste disposal plant in that community, a plant made necessary by the Oakland contract.

West Oakland has a long history of environmental advocacy, but none of the recognized West Oakland environmental leaders or organizations leant their names to this mysterious new “Clean West Oakland Now” websote that was agitating against CWS. In fact, when one tried to go through a series of web-pages to try to find out exactly who were the organizers and instigators of this mysterious website, one could find no names at all, recognized or otherwise.

Whether Waste Management had a hand in this anonymous “Clean West Oakland Now” campaign against CWS, the campaign fit in neatly with Waste Management’s own goal to spread confusion, turn public opinion against CWS, and undermine the Oakland-CWS deal.

Still, Oakland City Council and the administration of then-Mayor Jean Quan might have held firm under the pressure even then. However, before the new waste disposal contract could be fully consummated, CWS itself suddenly backed out of the deal and announcing their desire to “partner” with Waste Management on the Oakland contract. CWS leaders said that they had realized that they did not have the wherewithal to carry out their duties under the contract. What apparently happened was that some of the bank financing they had counted on to carry out the Oakland work had unexpectedly dried up. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to speculate on how or why the financers came to that conclusion so late in the game.

Anyhow, with no time left to look for an alternative, the Oakland City Council accepted CWS’ “suggestion” to drop the contract with them and sign a general waste disposal contract renewal with Waste Management. CWS got the small end of the deal, retaining the right to collect Oakland's recyclables.

Oakland City Councilmembers now contend that many of the service changes that amount to additional fee increases that Oakland citizens are now complaining about were stuck into the back of the Waste Management contract, where they went unnoticed by the Council. I’m not one to take the Council solely at its word, but it seems reasonable to assume that since the Council originally rejected the Waste Management deal, they would have mentioned those service changes in giving their reason back last year for that initial rejection. They didn’t, only citing Waste Management’s general fee rate increase as one of their reasons for turning to CWS.

A reasonable conclusion is that either Councilmembers did not see the additional service changes at all, or saw them but felt they had a gun to their heads, figuratively, and had no choice after CWS back out but to agree to whatever Waste Management proposed.

It makes sense for angry Oakland citizens to continue take their case about the increased fees and waste disposal service changes to the City Council, even when concluding that it is actually Waste Management, and not the Council, that should take the blame in this situation. Good luck, after all, trying to meet with Waste Management officials and getting them to give back the money they’re forcing out of Oakland. At least the Council provides a public forum to air citizen grievances even if, in this instance, it doesn’t look like much can be done to alter the waste disposal contract terms.

Does that mean that nothing can be done about the waste disposal situation in Oakland, and we’re stuck with Waste Management forever, since they’ve certainly scared off any competitors for the forseeable future?

When the Waste Management contract was signed last fall, I suggested an alternative. But it’s going to take a bit of discussion to make the case for it, so that will have to wait until another time.

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