We spotted Indian Joe, an iconic San Francisco character who’s famous for emulating the look of rock legend Alice Cooper, on the sidewalk outside the Bay Guardian office Monday morning. Donning his signature top hat, he beamed and said hello. But something was wrong.
Joe was sitting in a wheelchair, and the lower half of his right leg was gone.
He filled us in on how it happened: Less than a month ago, a concrete block fell onto his leg at a recycling facility operated by Recology, instantly crushing his ankle and foot. He’d gone to the recycling center, located at Pier 96 on Amadour Street in San Francisco, on Aug. 18, to help a friend unload recycled cardboard.
They’d gone numerous times before. He said they used the same practice for unloading his friend’s pickup truck that they and other recyclers always use, which involves tying one end of a rope securing the bundle of cardboard to a concrete block with an eyelet sticking out of it, and driving forward a few feet to pull the cardboard off the truck bed. But on this day, the concrete somehow came loose and crushed Indian Joe’s leg, causing him to lose a limb.
The day after we encountered Joe on the street, we stopped in to see him at the Hotel Alder, a Sixth Street SRO where he’s lived for four years. He shares his room with a sweet gray cat named Thin Lizzy, named after the rock band. Jack Ottaway, a photographer who’s acted as Joe’s caretaker since the accident, was with him, preparing to take him to a doctor’s appointment later that morning.
Joe said that after the concrete block fell onto his leg, a number of Recology employees came running over but didn’t immediately free him from the enormous weight he was trapped under, even though he could see a forklift nearby. Finally the concrete was moved aside, and he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. “I heard them in the ambulance as they were talking to [San Francisco General Hospital],” he recalled, “and they were saying, ‘we’re going to have to amputate his leg.’”
Joe is still experiencing serious pain and he said he’s been having nightmares about the accident. He got emotional when he explained what had happened, but he’s maintained his sense of humor throughout the ordeal. “I may be down, but I’m not out. The first bionic Indian!” he laughed.
“I’m getting ready to go swimming,” he jokingly told a neighbor later on, top hat in place, as his caretaker wheeled him toward the elevator on their way to the doctor. “I’m gonna do the high dive!”
A few days after the operation, Joe celebrated his 52nd birthday in the hospital. He received a giant get well soon / happy birthday card signed by students from Crocker Middle School. They’d taped a picture of Alice Cooper on the front and covered the card in hand-written messages.
Earlier on the day of the accident, Joe had gone to De Marillac Academy, a school that educates low-income, underserved youth from the Tenderloin, to deliver a “motivational talk.” It’s one of several schools, including Crocker, where he regularly speaks to youth, telling his personal story. “We talk about hunger, homelessness, and what it’s like being Native American,” he explained. “They all love me to death.”
Joe was homeless on the streets of San Francisco for many years before moving into the SRO. “Over the years, the city’s been good to me,” he said. He’s made appearances in two documentary films. One of them, the Emmy-winning “A Brush With the Tenderloin” by filmmaker Paige Bierma, focuses on a Tenderloin mural painted by local artist Mona Caron. Indian Joe is painted into the mural.
“People recognize me,” Joe said. “I got to wearing my top hat, and that became my trademark over the years.” Then came the Alice Cooper makeup, which a friend did for him the first time. Walking down the street, “I felt so self-conscious, and people were looking at me,” he said. “And then I thought: There’s a lot weirder people than me in San Francisco!”
Joe said he grew up in British Columbia, and his family is a part of the Shuswap Tribe. While living on the streets, he said, he became a victim of violence more than once: “I was stabbed eight times,” he noted, lifting his shirt to show the scars. “I was shot in the back with a 9 millimeter.” He also said he kicked a decade-long heroin addiction. “I just told the devil, here’s the needle, I quit,” he said. The withdrawal “was five years of hell,” he said, but since then, a few people have approached him to say that he inspired them to give it up, too.
When Joe sits on the sidewalk outside of his SRO in his wheelchair, practically every other passerby stops to greet him, shake his hand, and ask him how he’s getting along. But he’ll be making many more visits to the doctor in the near future, and meeting with his lawyer.
Attorney Tanya Gomerman, who is representing him, told the Bay Guardian that she and her team are “currently investigating the facts of the injury,” and believe that “Recology was negligent in maintaining their premises in a reasonably safe condition.”
Reached by phone, Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti said the concrete block, called a push wall, wasn’t supposed to be used for the purpose of helping to unload recycled cardboard from the back of a truck. But Alberti said he didn’t have enough information to explain why attendants wouldn’t have intervened to prevent an unsafe practice. “Recology is saddened by this accident and is evaluating all aspects of its operations,” Alberti said. “Our sympathies go out to the customer.”
San Francisco elected officials frequently celebrate the ambitious citywide goal of sending zero waste to the landfill by 2020, an environmental feat widely viewed as attainable since the current waste diversion rate stands at a stellar 80 percent.
Official city numbers — based on reporting by Recology, a company that has a monopoly on trash collection and curbside recycling in San Francisco — demonstrate that only 20 percent of all city dwellers’ trash ends up in a landfill, that unenlightened dead end for matter discarded from our lives, never to be reprocessed.
Yet a lawsuit against Recology exposed some inconsistencies in the company’s record keeping. It also shed light on how some material counted as “diverted” is routinely sent to a landfill anyway, a practice that muddies the concept of the city’s Zero Waste program but is nevertheless legal under state law.
On June 17, a San Francisco jury determined that Recology misrepresented the amount of waste diverted from the landfill in 2008, enabling it to collect an incentive payment of $1.36 million for meeting the goal. The verdict compels Recology to pay the money back to the city, since it was obtained after submitting a false claim.
The outcome of this lawsuit — brought by a former manager of the Tunnel Road recycling Buy Back facility, who also claims he was retaliated against for trying to expose fraud — highlights some larger questions. Was this inaccuracy unique to 2008, or are Recology’s numbers always a little fuzzy? Are there adequate safeguards in place to prevent the company from fudging the numbers, particularly when both company and city officials have an incentive to exaggerate the diversion rate? And if what’s on paper doesn’t quite square with reality, is San Francisco really keeping as much garbage out of the landfill as the city’s Department of the Environment says it is?
Attorney David Anton, who represented the former Recology employee, Brian McVeigh, said he found it odd that San Francisco officials didn’t show much interest in collaborating to recover the bonus money, even though millions of dollars was potentially at stake. Since damages are trebled under the False Claims Act, cited in the lawsuit, Recology could ultimately be made to fork over the incentive payment three times over.
“The city’s representative in the Department of the Environment actually testified that he hoped this lawsuit would be unsuccessful,” Anton recounted. He guessed that officials remained on the sidelines because in San Francisco’s political power centers, “relationships with Recology are so close and tight. It was a very strange thing,” he went on, “to be pursuing this lawsuit, trying to get money to the city, and the city’s representatives are saying, ‘we don’t want it.'”
Recology has filed post-trial motions in a bid to have the penalty reduced, “asking the court to decide whether there was any evidence at trial that there were public funds in the Diversion Incentive Account, and if so, how much,” explained Recology spokesperson Eric Potashner. “We expect a ruling this summer.”
Department of the Environment spokesperson Guillermo Rodriguez told the Guardian that Robert Haley, manager of the department’s Zero Waste team, was unavailable for comment before press time. With regard to the lawsuit, Rodriguez noted, “The city has been following the trial closely and is awaiting the judge’s ruling on post-trial motions before determining any reaction.”
The False Claims Act is designed to recover damages to government when false statements are made to obtain money or avoid making payments. It has a provision allowing whistleblowers, such as McVeigh, to lead the charge on seeking civil enforcement action. The whistleblower may be eligible to receive a share of recovery.
Under the bonus incentive program, Recology sets aside extra cash — collected from garbage customers’ payments — in a segregated account. But it cannot withdraw funds from that account unless it hits the city’s established waste-reduction targets. Recology submitted paperwork to the city in 2008 showing that it met the diversion goals, so it was allowed to withdraw the money.
But the lawsuit demonstrated that Recology actually fell short of those goals — and apparently, nobody in city government ever followed up to check whether the reporting was accurate.
A key reason the jury ruled against Recology on this particular claim, according to Anton, was that it was found to have misclassified some construction and demolition waste as “diverted” material. Under state law, when ground-up construction debris is used to cover the top of a landfill — to prevent pests, fires, and odors, for example — it’s counted as “alternative daily cover.” Trash in this category winds up in a landfill, just like any other trash. But state law allows garbage companies to count it as “diverted,” just as if it were an aluminum can tossed into the blue bin.
The lawsuit claimed that Recology tried to count a great many tons of construction and demolition waste as “alternative daily cover” when in reality, it should have been counted as just plain trash.
Solano County records show that a landfill inspector had flagged an “area of concern” after discovering solid waste mixed in with construction debris Recology shipped to a landfill for use as that top layer. “It looks like they didn’t do a good enough job of cleaning out that material,” CalRecycle spokesperson Mark Oldfield noted as he pulled up the report from 2008 at the Guardian’s request.
Had the material gone to the landfill as just plain garbage, instead of “alternative daily cover,” Recology would have had to count it as waste sent to the landfill, instead of waste diverted from the landfill. That would have meant falling short of the waste diversion goal, hence losing out on the $1.36 million.
“Recology kept this completely secret from San Francisco,” according to Anton.
Potashner said it was actually a bit more complicated — the company challenged the inspector’s findings, he said. “The local enforcement agency in Solano County had questions about that material,” but Recology never received a cease-and-desist order, he added. “When we had talked to jurors after the fact, that was the issue that seemed to sway them. In 2008 we didn’t make that bonus by that much. They thought we shouldn’t have been able to count that as diversion because of this issue.”
Either way, the incident exposes a strange reality: When San Francisco city officials trumpet the citywide success of “diverting” 80 percent of all waste from the landfill, some portion of that 80 percent actually winds up in a landfill anyhow. Whether the construction debris counted as “alternative daily cover” has trash mixed into it or not, it’s still destined to wind up in a big, environmentally unfriendly trash heap.
The lawsuit highlighted a few other red flags, too, raising more questions about the city’s true diversion numbers. For instance, the suit claimed that Recology was involved in a system of digging up concrete from its own parking lots, to be handed over to concrete recyclers as “diverted” waste.
“Recology facilities have large areas of concrete pads,” the complaint noted. “Management of Recology … directed Recology work crews in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 to cut out sections of concrete pads and deliver the removed concrete to concrete recyclers, to falsely inflate the diversion incentive reported to SF.”
The waste management company then “solicited cement companies to deliver and dispose of excess and rejected concrete loads to Recology, to fill in the removed concrete pad sections,” according to the complaint. Those shipments were brought in on trucks that weren’t weighed at entry, and then placed in the concrete pads. Management then had work crews remove the same concrete that had been delivered, shipped it to the concrete recyclers, and reported it “as diverted from being disposed in a landfill,” the complaint noted.
This account was corroborated by a Guardian source unrelated the lawsuit, but nonetheless familiar with the inner workings of the company. “They would take the concrete across the road — right across the street,” this person confirmed.
Asked to provide an explanation for this, Recology’s Potashner said, “it is clear, and wasn’t even challenged by the plaintiff at trial, that recycled concrete is diverted, whether it had been from Recology’s lots or anywhere else.”
McVeigh’s case stemmed from his realization, while working as a manager at Recology’s Tunnel Road recycling buyback facility, that employees there were routinely marking up the weights of recyclable materials brought in, in order to pay out certain customers more than they were actually owed. The suit suggests that these routinely inflated California redemption value (CRV) tags contributed to Recology missing its waste-diversion targets, but the jury ultimately sided against the plaintiff on this question since it amounted to a financial loss for Recology, not the city.
The complaint included tag numbers and logs of scale weights that didn’t match up, showing a pattern of fraudulent dealings at the buyback center. In November 2007, for example, “ticket reports showed that 23.4 tons of aluminum CRV cans were purchased at the Bayshore Buyback Center, yet only 16.56 tons existed and were shipped.”
Asked about these claims, Potashner acknowledged that there may have been some “knuckleheads” involved in messing with the scales at the buyback center, but asserted that such activity had since been addressed. He added, “If there were any staffing issues around theft, that was actually affecting Recology’s books,” not the public.
Oldfield, the CalRecycle spokesperson, noted that a long list of paperwork violations had been recorded in 2010, but he said the company appeared to have been in compliance since then — based on logs from inspectors’ visits once a year.
Another problem uncovered in the trial, Anton said, had to do with Recology misrepresenting tons of garbage from out of county, so that it would be counted outside the parameters of the waste diversion program. Potashner said that had been corrected, adding, “the out-of-county waste is really a small volume.”
But he confirmed that yet another practice brought to light in this lawsuit is ongoing, revealing a surprising end for some of the stuff that gets tossed into the green compost bins.
MANY SHADES OF GREEN
According to every colorful flier sent out by Recology, the stuff that goes into the green bin gets composted. The green bin is for compost. The blue bin is for recycling. The black bin is for trash that goes to the landfill. This is the fundamental basis of Recology’s waste collection operation and, taking the company and the Department of the Environment at face value, one would assume that 80 percent of all waste was being processed through the blue and green waste streams.
Instead, some of what gets tossed into green bins makes its way to a landfill.
The green-bin waste is shipped to a Recology facility where it’s turned into compost, a process that involves sifting through giant screens. But some of what gets processed, known as “overs” because it isn’t fine enough to drop through the screens, is routinely transferred to a nearby landfill, where it’s spread atop the trash pile. Once again, this six-inch topper of neutralizing material is known as “alternative daily cover.”
Although Recology could convert 100 percent of its green-bin waste into soil-nourishing compost, the practice of using partially processed green-bin waste for “alternative daily cover” is cheap — and it’s perfectly legal under California law. Roughly 10 percent of what gets tossed into the compost bins is used in this way, Recology confirmed.
“There are some people who will say using green waste isn’t really diversion,” acknowledged Jeff Danzinger, a spokesperson with CalRecycle, which oversees recycling programs in California counties. “There’s some people who say we should stop that practice because that just incentivizes a landfill solution for green waste. But if somebody’s saying green waste shouldn’t go into a landfill and get counted as diversion, it’s an opinion.”
Nor is it something the city objects to. The Department of the Environment is aware of this practice, Recology’s Potashner told the Bay Guardian. Yet the city agency has never raised formal concerns about it, despite a mandate under its composting program agreement that the company use green-bin waste for the highest and best possible use.
But there’s no incentive for anyone in city government to complain: Recology may legally count this discarded material as “diverted” in official reporting, thus edging it closer to an annual bonus payment. San Francisco, meanwhile, may count it as part of the 80 percent that was successfully diverted — thus edging it closer to the ambitious Zero Waste program goal.
“It’s great PR to say you’re the highest recycling,” noted the person who was familiar with the company, but wasn’t part of the lawsuit. “It’s almost a movement more than reality. But who’s really watching for the public on these numbers? There’s no watchdog. It’s all about bragging rights.”
Recology is “a political business”
Recology’s political connections in San Francisco run deep. Years ago, when former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown served as speaker of the California Assembly, he also worked as a lawyer for Recology, which was then known as Norcal Waste Systems.
Campaign finance archives show that when Brown ran for mayor in 1995, he received multiple campaign contributions from Norcal employees in what appeared to be a coordinated fashion.
Brown continues to be influential in the city’s political landscape due to his close relationship with Mayor Ed Lee, who himself came under scrutiny in his capacity as head of the Department of Public Works in 1999 when he was accused of granting Norcal a major rate increase as a reward for political donations to Brown.
In 2010, when Recology submitted a bid for a lucrative waste-disposal contract proposing to haul waste to its Yuba County landfill, Lee reviewed its proposal in his then-capacity as city administrator. As the Guardian reported (see “Trash talk,” 3/30/10), Lee recommended far higher scores for Recology than his counterparts on the contract review team, a key to the company winning the landfill contract over competitor Waste Management Inc. Before Lee declared his mayoral candidacy in 2011, news reports indicated that powerful Chinatown consultant Rose Pak had worked in tandem with Recology executives on a campaign effort, “Run Ed Run,” organized to urge Lee to launch a mayoral bid. Company employees had also been instructed to help gather signatures to petition Lee to run for mayor, news reports indicated, but Pak publicly denied her role coordinating this effort. David Anton, the attorney for Brian McVeigh, emphasized that Recology’s close ties to powerful city officials might have something to do with the city’s lack of interest in targeting the company for the improperly received incentive payments. Yet Recology spokesperson Eric Potashner called this assertion “completely untrue. Recology meets with the various city departments and regulators weekly. We are constantly improving our controls and practices for handling the city’s ever-changing waste stream; often at the behest of city regulators.” Recology and its predecessor companies have maintained the exclusive right to collect commercial and residential refuse in San Francisco since 1932, and rates are routinely raised for city garbage customers, based on the company’s own reporting that its costs are increasing. “I can tell you today, there will be another significant increase on July 21, 2016” — five years after the last rate increase — “because they have a monopoly,” said neighborhood activist and District 10 supervisorial candidate Tony Kelly, who previously worked on a ballot measure that sought to have the city’s refuse collection contract go out for a competitive bid. “When you have a closed system … then it’s entirely a black box. It’ll all be self-reported. It’s too powerful of an incentive.” An industry insider familiar with Recology echoed this point, adding that cozy relationships with local officials make it easier for the self-reporting to escape scrutiny. “It’s a political business,” this person said. “In San Francisco, they’re really a political organization.” Since the rate is guaranteed, this person added, the mentality is that there’s plenty of wiggle room for financial losses and expenditures such as generous political contributions. “If you’re losing any money, you just ask for it back when you do your next rate increase. The city doesn’t have any objection. The ratepayers just get stuck with it.” (Rebecca Bowe)
A jury has determined that Recology, San Francisco’s garbage collection contractor, was not honest with the city when it collected a bonus payment of $1.36 million for successfully diverting waste from the landfill.
Brought by a former employee, the lawsuit claims that Recology misrepresented the amount of diverted waste in order to qualify for the bonus money. This is especially significant because San Francisco is recognized nationwide as a leader in its quest to send zero waste to the landfill as an environmental goal.
Jurors deliberated for more than a week before issuing their determination, and ultimately found on June 17 that the waste management company had made a false claim and therefore must pay the city $1.36 million to compensate for the amount it improperly received.
The False Claims Act, the California law under which the suit was filed, provides that violators can be made to pay three times the amount collected under false pretenses, with interest tacked on to boot. That means Recology could ultimately wind up paying out an amount closer to $5.5 million.
Under an incentive program set up by the city, Recology may reap additional bonus profits above what it normally earns from the business of collecting and processing San Francisco customers’ trash if it effectively meets targets for keeping the trash out of the landfill, the most environmentally harmful waste disposal method. Under the program structure, Recology may withdraw this extra money from an account it maintains, containing funds derived from rates paid by garbage customers, if it meets the city’s established waste diversion targets.
The lawsuit, filed in 2010, claims Recology used several schemes to manipulate waste diversion records when it submitted records the San Francisco Department of the Environment in 2008, in order to be granted permission to withdraw the bonus money. The suit claimed this happened in three other years, too, but the jury only ruled against Recology for this one year.
The primary way this occurred, according to attorney David Anton, involved misclassifying demolition and construction waste. Under state law, ground up raw construction material that is labeled as “fines” can legally be used to cover up the top of a landfill – in order to prevent pests, fires, and odors, for example. When construction waste is ground up and used this way, it counts as “alternative daily cover” – like a layer of frosting on a giant cake of garbage – and strangely enough, the state allows waste disposal companies to count that frosting as “diverted waste” even though it’s actually part of the landfill.
The lawsuit claimed that Recology tried to count a great many tons of its construction and demolition waste as “fines” when in reality it should have been labeled just plain garbage, because the tons of stuff that they were shipping to the Solano County landfill wasn’t being processed to a fine enough grade to comply with state requirements for what constitutes “fines.”
The difference between “fines” and regular old construction and demolition waste is that for the latter, the company would have had to pay a fee to dispose of it – and would have had to count it as waste sent to the landfill, rather than waste diverted from the landfill. Had it been counted as plain old garbage, Recology would have missed its diversion targets in 2008, thus losing out on the $1.36 million bonus payment.
“The construction material that they were sending – they were telling SF was qualified to be used for this beneficial purpose at the landfill,” said Anton, “when in fact, the county and the state had said it was not qualified for it, it can’t be used that way, and it can’t be accounted that way.” He added, “Recology kept this completely secret from San Francisco.”
Recology spokesperson Eric Potashner told us the company plans to appeal this finding, because the violation Recology received in regard to the “fines” was only the start of a lengthy process. “The local enforcement agency in Solano County had questions about that material,” he said, noting that Recology went through a formal process of challenging an inspector’s assessment of the material. He said that at the end of the day Recology was never issued a cease-and-desist, nor was it made to revise company records to count it as anything other than “alternative daily cover.”
Another problem uncovered in the trial, Anton said, had to do with Recology misrepresenting tons of garbage generated in San Francisco as having originated in a different county, so that it could be counted outside the parameters of the waste diversion program. Potashner called that “an oversight” that had since been corrected, and added that it would not amount to enough to “move the needle” on hitting the diversion goals.
Finally, Anton noted, it came out in the course of the trial that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of what residential customers chuck into their green compost bins actually winds up in the landfill at the end of the day.
Where happens to the stuff that goes in the green bin? “What we found out in this trial,” Anton said, “is that it’s sent to a place where they can compost it, but this place doesn’t necessarily make it into compost. Recology owns the composting place. And the composting place happens to be at a landfill. And it happens to be the law that a landfill has to cover the garbage that it gets every day. It’s got to cover it with dirt – six inches of dirt. Every day. A lot of landfills buy dirt to cover it – but the state allows you to … take mulch or green waste, if it’s chopped up fine, and cover a landfill with it. Well, Recology decided that they made more money and did better if they took a bunch of your green bin material, and put it on their landfill, rather than buying dirt.” As a result, he said, some of that green-bin waste “gets put in a landfill every night.”
Which really isn’t what most people would expect would happen after they’ve chucked some yard clippings into a compost bin.
When San Francisco set up the green-bin composting program, Anton said, a specific policy was created against this sort of practice. Nevertheless, “San Francisco knew that the company was doing that,” he said, and permitted it despite the formal policy because “they wanted to help out the company.”
Potashner said it is perfectly legitimate under state law for green waste to be used as alternative daily cover. “The Department of the Environment watches this, and knows we’re doing this,” Potashner said.
All of which underscores a point that Anton said he found to be somewhat confusing, or perhaps telling: “It was a very strange thing,” he said, “to be pursuing this lawsuit, trying to get money to the city, and the city’s representatives are saying, ‘we don’t want it.’”
He said he found it odd that a representitive from the San Francisco Department of the Environment, which oversees the city’s Zero Waste program, even made a statement in the course of the trial suggesting that he hoped the suit wasn’t successful.
Anton guessed that the city remained on the sidelines of this case because its “relationships with Recology are so close and tight.”
The Department of the Environment did not return the Bay Guardian’s request for comment.
We all want to be responsible for our environment. We sort our trash. We put the right things into the right containers, and feel good when we see them at the curb on trash pickup day.
Then the trash disappears. End of story.
But really, it’s not the end. Not only does the trash go somewhere, but people still have to sort through what we’ve thrown away. In a society full of people doing work that’s unacknowledged, and often out of sight, those who deal with our recycled trash are some of the most invisible of all.
Sorting trash is dangerous and dirty work. In 2012 two East Bay workers were killed in recycling facilities. With some notable exceptions, putting your hands into fast moving conveyor belts filled with cardboard and cans does not pay well — much less, for instance, than the jobs of the drivers who pick up the containers at the curb. And the sorting is done almost entirely by women of color; in the Bay Area, they are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, as well as some African Americans.
This spring, one group of recycling workers, probably those with the worst conditions of all, finally had enough. Their effort to attain higher wages, particularly after many were fired for their immigration status, began to pull back recycling’s cloak of invisibility. Not only did they become visible activists in a growing movement of East Bay recycling workers, but their protests galvanized public action to stop the firings of undocumented workers.
ILLEGAL WAGES FOR “TEMPORARY” WORKERS
Alameda County Industries occupies two big, nondescript buildings at the end of a cul-de-sac in a San Leandro industrial park. Garbage trucks with recycled trash pull in every minute, dumping their fragrant loads gathered on routes in Livermore, Alameda, and San Leandro. These cities contract with ACI to process the trash. In the Bay Area, only one city, Berkeley, picks up its own garbage. All the rest sign contracts with private companies. Even Berkeley contracts recycling to an independent sorter.
At ACI, the company contracts out its own sorting work. A temp agency, Select Staffing, hires and employs the workers on the lines. As at most temp agencies, this means sorters have no health insurance, no vacations, and no holidays. It also means wages are very low, even for recycling. After a small raise two years ago, sorters began earning $8.30 per hour during the day shift, and $8.50 at night.
Last winter, workers discovered this was an illegal wage.
Because ACI has a contract with the city of San Leandro to process its recycling, it is covered by the city’s Living Wage Ordinance, passed in 2007. Under that law, as of July 2013: “Covered businesses are required to pay no less than $14.17 per hour or $12.67 with health benefits valued at least $1.50 per hour, subject to annual CPI [consumer price index] adjustment.”
There is no union for recycling workers at ACI, but last fall some of the women on the lines got a leaflet advertising a health and safety training workshop for recycling workers, put on by Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. There, they met the union’s organizing director, Agustin Ramirez. “Sorting trash is not a clean or easy job anywhere,” he recalls, “but what they described was shocking. And when they told me what they were paid, I knew something was very wrong.”
Ramirez put them in touch with a lawyer. In January, the lawyer sent ACI and Select a letter stating workers’ intention to file suit to reclaim the unpaid wages. ACI has about 70 sorters. At 2,000 work hours per year each, and a potential discrepancy of almost $6 per hour, that adds up to a lot of money in back wages.
The response by ACI and Select was quick. In early February, 18 workers — including all but one who’d signed onto the initial suit — were called into the Select office. They were told the company had been audited by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security a year before, and that ICE had questioned their immigration status. Unless they could provide a good Social Security number and valid work authorization within a few days, they’d be terminated.
Instead of quietly disappearing, though, about half the sorters walked off the lines on Feb. 27, protesting the impending firings and asking for more time from the company and ICE. Faith leaders and members of Alameda County United for Immigrant Rights joined them in front of the ACI office. Workers came from other recycling facilities. Jack in the Box workers, some of whom were fired after last fall’s fast-food strikes, marched down the cul-de-sac carrying their banner of the East Bay Organizing Committee. Even San Leandro City Councilman Jim Prola showed up.
“The company told us they’d fire anyone who walked out,” said sorter Ignacia Garcia. But after a confrontation at the gate, with trucks full of recycled trash backed up for a block, Select and ACI managers agreed the strikers could return to work the following day. The next week, however, all 18 accused of being undocumented were fired. “Some of us have been there 14 years, so why now?” wondered Garcia.
In the weeks that followed, East Bay churches, which earlier called ICE to try to stop the firings, collected more than $6,500 to pay rent for nine families. According to Rev. Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, “after they had a chance to meet the fired workers and hear their stories, their hearts went out to these hardworking workers and parents, who had no warning, and no safety net.” Money is still coming in, she says.
ONE OF MANY BATTLES
Because cities give contracts for recycling services, they indirectly control how much money is available for workers’ wages. But a lot depends on the contractor. San Francisco workers have the gold standard. Recology, whose garbage contract is written into the city charter, has a labor contract with the Teamsters Union. Under it, workers on its recycle lines are guaranteed to earn $21 an hour.
Across the bay, wages are much lower.
ACI is one battle among many taking place among recycling workers concerning low wages. In 1998, Ramirez and the ILWU began organizing sorters. That year 70 workers struck California Waste Solutions, which received a contract for half of Oakland’s recycling in 1992. As at ACI, workers were motivated by a living wage ordinance. At the time, Oakland mandated $8 an hour plus $2.40 for health insurance. Workers were only paid $6, and the city had failed to monitor the company for seven years, until the strike.
Finally, the walkout was settled for increases that eventually brought CWS into compliance. During the conflict, however, it became public (through the Bay Guardian in particular) that Councilman Larry Reid had a financial interest in the business, and that CWS owner David Duong was contributing thousands of dollars in city election races.
Waste Management, Inc., holds the Oakland city garbage contract. While garbage haulers have been Teamster members for decades, when Waste Management took over Oakland’s recycling contract in 1991 it signed an agreement with ILWU Local 6. Here too workers faced immigration raids. In 1998, sorters at Waste Management’s San Leandro facility staged a wildcat work stoppage over safety issues, occupying the company’s lunchroom. Three weeks later immigration agents showed up, audited company records, and eventually deported eight of them. And last year another three workers were fired from Waste Management, accused of not having legal immigration status.
Today Waste Management sorters are paid $12.50 under the ILWU contract — more than ACI, but a long way from the hourly wage Recology pays in San Francisco. Furthermore, the union contracts with both CWS and Waste Management expired almost two years ago. The union hasn’t signed new ones, because workers are tired of the second-class wage standard.
To increase wages, union recycling workers in the East Bay organized a coalition to establish a new standard — not just for wages, but safety and working conditions — called the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling. Two dozen organizations belong to it in addition to the union, including the Sierra Club, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Movement Generation, the Justice and Ecology Project, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, and the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy.
ILWU researcher Amy Willis points out, “San Francisco, with a $21 wage, charges garbage rates to customers of $34 a month. East Bay recyclers pay half that wage, but East Bay ratepayers still pay $28-30 for garbage, recycling included. So where’s the money going? Not to the workers, clearly.”
Fremont became the test for the campaign’s strategy of forcing cities to mandate wage increases. Last December the Fremont City Council passed a 32-cent rate increase with the condition that its recycler, BLT, agree to provide raises. The union contract there now mandates $14.59 per hour for sorters in 2014, finally reaching $20.94 in 2019. Oakland has followed, requiring wage increases for sorters as part of the new recycling contract that’s currently up for bid.
Good news for those still working. But even for people currently on the job, and certainly for the 18 workers fired at ACI, raising wages only addresses part of the problem. Even more important is the ability to keep working and earn that paycheck.
CRIMINALIZING IMMIGRANT WORKERS
When ACI and Select told workers they’d be fired if they couldn’t produce good Social Security numbers and proof of legal immigration status, they were only “obeying the law.” Since 1986, U.S. immigration law has prohibited employers from hiring undocumented workers. Yet according to the Pew Hispanic Trust, 11-12 million people without papers live in the U.S. — and not only do the vast majority of them work, they have to work as a matter of survival. Without papers people can’t collect unemployment benefits, family assistance or almost any other public benefit.
To enforce the law, all job applicants must fill out an I-9 form, provide a Social Security number and show the employer two pieces of ID. Since 1986 immigration authorities have audited the I-9 forms in company personnel records to find workers with bad Social Security numbers or other ID problems. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) then sends the employer a letter, demanding that it fire those workers.
According to ICE, last year the agency audited over 2,000 employers, and similar numbers in previous years. One of the biggest mass firings took place in San Francisco in 2010, when 475 janitors cleaning office buildings for ABM Industries lost their jobs. Olga Miranda, president of Service Employees Local 87, the city’s janitors union, charges: “You cannot kill a family quicker than by taking away their right to find employment. The I-9 audits, the workplace raids, E-Verify, make workers fear to speak out against injustices, that because of their immigration status they have no standing in this country. They have criminalized immigrants. They have dehumanized them.”
One fired janitor, Teresa Mina, said at the time, “This law is very unjust. We’re doing jobs that are heavy and dirty, to help our children have a better life, or just to eat. Now my children won’t have what they need.”
Similar I-9 audits have taken place in the past two years at the Pacific Steel foundry in Berkeley, at Silicon Valley cafeterias run by Bon Appetit, at South Bay building contractor Albanese Construction, and at the Dobake bakery, where workers prepare food for many Bay Area schools. All are union employers.
Sometimes the audits take place where workers have no union, but are protesting wages and conditions. Like the ACI workers, in 2006 employees at the Woodfin Suites hotel in Emeryville asked their employer to raise their wages to comply with the city’s living wage ordinance. Twenty-one housekeepers were then fired for not having papers. Emeryville finally collected over $100,000 in back pay on their behalf, but the workers were never able to return to their jobs.
Last fall, as fast-food workers around the country were demanding $15 an hour, several were fired at an Oakland Jack in the Box for being undocumented. “They knew that when they hired us,” said Diana Rivera. “I don’t believe working is a crime. What we’re doing is something normal — we’re not hurting anyone.” The Mi Pueblo Mexican market chain also fired many workers in an immigration audit, during a union organizing drive.
Because the audits are not public, no exact total of the number of workers fired is available. ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice would not comment on the audit at ACI. In response to an information request, she stated: “To avoid negatively impacting the reputation of law-abiding businesses, we do not release information or confirm an audit unless the investigation results in a fine or the filing of criminal charges.” Neither ACI nor Select Staffing responded to requests for comment.
San Francisco became a leader in opposing the firings in January, when the Board of Supervisors passed unanimously a resolution calling on the Obama administration to implement a moratorium on the audits and on deportations. Other cities, like Los Angeles, have also opposed deportations, but San Francisco added: “End the firings of undocumented workers by ending the I-9 audits and the use of the E-Verify system.”
Gordon Mar, of Jobs with Justice, urged the board to act at a rally in front of City Hall. “When hundreds of workers are fired from their jobs,” he declared, “the damage is felt far beyond the workers themselves. Many communities have voiced their opposition to these ‘silent raids’ because they hurt everyone. Making it a crime to work drives people into poverty, and drives down workplace standards for all people.” Like many Bay Area progressive immigrant rights activists, Mar calls for repealing the section of immigration law that prohibits the undocumented from working.
The Board of Supervisors urged President Obama to change the way immigration law is enforced, in part because Congress has failed to pass immigration reform that would protect immigrants’ rights. The Senate did pass a bill a year ago, but although it might eventually bring legal status to some of the undocumented, other provisions would increase firings and deportations.
Like the Board of Supervisors, therefore, the California Legislature has also passed measures that took effect Jan. 1, to ameliorate the consequences of workplace immigration enforcement: AB 263, AB 524, and SB 666. Retaliation is now illegal against workers who complain they are owed unpaid wages, or who testify about an employer’s violation of a statute or regulation. Employers can have their business licenses suspended if they threaten to report the immigration status of workers who exercise their rights. Lawyers who do so can be disbarred. And threats to report immigration status can be considered extortion.
It’s too early to know how effective these new measures will be in protecting workers like the 18 who were fired at ACI. While a memorandum of understanding between ICE and the Department of Labor bars audits or other enforcement actions in retaliation for enforcing wage and hour laws, ICE routinely denies it engages in such retaliation.
Yet, as difficult as their situation is, the fired recyclers don’t seem to regret having filed the suit and standing up for their rights. Meanwhile, the actions by the cities of Oakland and Fremont hold out the promise of a better standard of living for those still laboring on the lines.
Remember 1999, before reality TV exploded all over our pop culture consciousness? Before you found yourself wondering “Why do I know what Kim Kardashian ate for breakfast?” That year, The Blair Witch Project broke new ground by scaring our pants off using found footage; by the time the fifth installment of Paranormal Activity rolled around, it seemed there were several nails in that genre’s coffin. Not so fast: Delivery takes on our obsession with reality shows with a nod to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), following a young couple who, in trying to have their first child, get selected for a reality show. All’s well, until a series of events portrayed through “un-aired reality footage” leads mom to believe her unborn child is possessed by something angry. Bonus: If you’re not ready for kids, this film can serve as a great reminder to use protection. (Emma Silvers)
Most artists shun pigeonholing and categorization of their work, but the Thermals are a self-described post-pop-punk band out of Portland (pre-Portlandia Portland, they’d like to note). Though the trio has existed for over 10 years, released six studio albums (the first of which was recorded for a whopping $60), and bounced around an amazing roster of highly respected indie labels (Sub Pop, Kill Rock Stars, and now Saddle Creek), the Thermals are still charmingly under-the-radar. Their disarming lo-fi sound, Northwestern flannel fuzz, and hooky sensibility are deserving of a larger audience, so there’s something very fortunate about getting to see them in such an intimate setting as the Chapel. (Haley Zaremba)
New York metal pioneers Manowar have been blasting stages since 1980, making a name for themselves with over-the-top volume levels — the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the band for having the loudest live performance on record in the mid-1980s — and sweeping musical epics that feature lyrics with sword and sorcery themes. Adding to the grand scale and image of the band, it was among the first metal groups to record with an orchestra and choir, and has even had the occasional guest narrator tell tales over its music, including legendary actors Orson Welles and Christopher Lee. Mere mortals may want to bring their earplugs for these “Sons of Odin”! (Sean McCourt)
If you’re still laboring under the illusion that men are always funnier than women, get ready for a big slap in the face. Once a month, the city’s funniest ladies come together for a night of stand-up at the Mission holdout Esta Noche. Bay Area comics Eloisa Bravo and Kimberly Rose Wendt started Bitchslap! about a year ago, in protest of the stereotype that women aren’t funny. Since then, Bitchslap! has gained both male and female fans, creating a nonsexist environment for women performers. Bravo hosts the show and Rose Wendt performs alongside the all-female lineup. (Laura B. Childs)
In modern/postmodern companies the collaborative process has become pretty much the norm. That’s why, in the programs, choreographers often acknowledge that “the work was created in collaboration with the dancers.” Ballet companies, for the most part, are a different breed: The choreographer brings the material to the studio and the dancers learn it. Yet many ballet dancers also want to choreograph. How will they learn? At Smuin Ballet, they do. XXperiments Choreography Showcase offers an evening of premieres by Smuin dancers set to music, lighting design, and more by their colleagues. The company has 17 dancers; 10 of them will be part of this program: Darrin Anderson, Erica Chipp, Aidan DeYoung, Jonathan Dummar, Nicole Haskins, Weston Krukow, Ben Needham-Wood, Jane Rehm, Susan Roemer, and Christian Squires. (Rita Felciano)
Whoever first said that “all that glitters isn’t gold” clearly hadn’t been to a Bay Guardian party. We’re going big — and sparkly — for this awards ceremony, which celebrates our hometown movers and shakers in music, visual art, performance, and more (the gold in Goldies stands for Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery). And, much like the Vanity Fair party after the Oscars, the real fun begins after the last award has been awarded, with music from DJs Primo Pitino and Wam Bam Ashleyanne and all-you-can-drink Lagunitas beer — all in the name of raising money for the worthy arts organization CounterPULSE. Don’t forget to wear your glitteriest gold attire: Under the Golden Gate will be snapping photos on the (actual) red carpet. Our fashion critics are kinder than Joan Rivers, we promise. (Emma Silvers)
Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa
If Nelson Mandela and mind-numbing Vuvuzelas are your only points of reference when it comes to South Africa, head over to the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts for a little education. The museum’s newest exhibit explores interpersonal relationships, encounters, and exchange in South Africa through the eyes of 25 contemporary artists. In collaboration with SFMOMA, YBCA presents an expansive collection of mixed-media projects, including photography, painting, sculpture, printmaking, graphic design, and performance. Coinciding with South Africa’s 20th anniversary of democracy, Public Intimacy promises to reveal an unexpected perspective of everyday life in the Rainbow Nation. (Childs)
Scotland’s We Were Promised Jetpacks may have an impossibly cute backstory — their first concert was at their school’s battle of the bands — but the group’s music refuses to be taken lightly. Marked by cymbal crashes, epic builds, serious brogue, and some Ian Curtis-level melancholy, the band’s two records provide a visceral listening experience. We Were Promised Jetpacks has matured a bit since their powerful debut record, These Four Walls, which they recorded in just eight days. For their follow-up, the band traveled to Iceland to record in Sigur Rós’ studio, and the result is an accordingly aching and beautiful record. The catharsis of the band’s recorded material is not lost in its notoriously powerful live presence. (Zaremba)
Think you know everything about San Francisco? Think again. The newest exhibition at SOMArts will have you completely rethinking the urban space you call home. Hidden Cities features 26 interactive images and installations that unearth forgotten or unseen social, environmental, and racial justice issues in the city. Many projects focus on human waste, like Christian Cerrito’s animatronic, belching metal trashcans and Yulia Pinksevich’s LED light display made from salvaged materials from San Francisco’s Recology landfill. You won’t want to miss the exhibit’s opening reception for two reasons: 1) An energetic parkour demonstration, featuring practitioners interacting with the city’s architecture, and 2) a chocolate cake with printed locations of sewage plants designed by one of the activist-artists will be served. Yum, chocolate sewers! (Laura)
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Tom Mallon had a huge influence and incredibly important impact on the independent San Francisco music scene, both as a performer — he played with American Music Club and Toiling Midgets, among others — and as a producer and engineer. Providing low-cost studio time and guidance, Mallon helped document the work of countless artists, ranging from Chris Isaak to Chuck Prophet. Unfortunately, Mallon passed away last month due to complications from a brain tumor. But his legacy lives on, and at this memorial a variety of people he worked with will come together to play a special show in tribute to him. (Sean McCourt)
Somewhere in drunkenly rocking Dylan-esque narrative of “History Eraser” — among deserving references to the Stones, Ezra Pound, and (I think) Tenacious D — there’s a reminder “that nothing really ever is exactly as it seems.” That’s good advice coming from Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett, on her collection The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. The songwriter has a knack for recounting relatable situations and even mundane experiences as extraordinary songs. Take the psychedlic-guitar fueled “Avant Gardener,” in which an asthma attack has the gravity of a bad acid-cum-hospital trip, leaving the singer feeling like “Uma Thurman post over-dosing kick-start.” The result is an album that has all the playful wit of The Moldy Peaches with the earnestness of Sharon Van Etten. (Ryan Prendiville)
It just keeps on growin’. The Noise Pop music festival, now in its 21st year, is one of the Bay Area’s most beloved live music traditions, featuring a reliably excellent lineup of both local and national buzz-worthy bands. New this year: a festival headquarters — a physical center for all things Noise Poppy — and that’s where the week’s rocking will be kicked off, with “Punk Rock Fancy,” featuring DJ sets by local treasure, punk icon, and Noise Pop godfather Bob Mould, West Coast punk godfather Jello Biafra, and artist-activist Shepard Fairey. For a Tuesday show timed for happy hour, you could do a lot worse. And judging by the lines at last year’s parties, you’ll be in good (or at least very party-ready) company. (Silvers)
An eviction crisis of a different sort has hit San Francisco, as one by one, recycling centers are closing across the city. Supervisor Eric Mar today called for a hearing on recycling center closures, to measure the impact on the city’s poor and its zero waste policies.
“I’ve heard from many of our residents that (the closures) will have severe impact on the low and no income members of our community,” Mar said at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “Many are immigrants who rely on this stream of income.”
The hearing was spurred by the announcement of the upcoming closure of a recycling center at the Market and Church street Safeway. But the problem is deeper than just one facility.
Since the closure of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s recycling center by Kezar stadium, four other recycling facilities in the northern half of San Francisco have closed or announced their closure. A sea of NIMBY neighbors are making war not on poverty, but the impoverished, as gentrifying neighborhoods chafe against rubbing shoulders with the downtrodden and homeless who trade in cans and bottles to make a meager living (many of whom we’ve profiled before).
Sup. Mar’s office is partnering with the Coalition on Homelessness to see just how those low-income communities are affected. Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach said many poor and lower-middle income earners depend on recycling centers for extra income.
“Pretty much all impoverished people recycle (at these centers),” she told the Guardian. “It’s a class delineator. You don’t recycle? You must be rich.”
And it’s those monied few, like that Haight Ashbury Improvement Association (who pushed out the HANC recycling center) who cry out against their existence.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist C. W. Nevius likes to poke at the poor by playing up the arguments of the “improvement associations” and other neighborhood groups that are calling for the recycling centers’ ouster. In his latest piece just last Saturday, Nevius lambasted the ills of the recycling “criminal enterprise.”
From his article: “What the closure will do is make it more difficult for the large-scale scavengers, who have turned theft of recyclables into a criminal enterprise. They cruise the streets at night and loot the curbside recycling bins. Some even pay homeless individuals a small sum to raid the bins and collect bottles and cans for them.”
It’s an open secret in San Francisco that many recycling scavengers in the city raid blue bins meant for Recology in search of cans and bottles. But the idea of the closure of the Market street Safeway recycling center spelling an end to their black market presence is perhaps a bit extreme.
Friedenbach agreed that Nevius’ theory makes little sense.
“Actually the close of these recycling centers has shown a dramatic increase in secondary recyclers,” Friedenbach said. “These people don’t have a place to recycle, and are forced to sell them at a cut rate to people in trucks.”
Those trucks driving around with ill-gotten hauls of recycling? They may increase without the presence of all those recycling centers — because they’re competitors. In addition, closing the the centers outright may not even now be as necessary as new regulations from the state, via CalRecycle, limit the amount of recyclables processing centers can take at any one time.
“January 1 there was a reduction in the daily load limit,” Marc Oldfield, communications director at CalRecycle told us. The previous limit of 500 pounds of aluminum or plastic was reduced to 100 pounds, closer to the average CalRecycle found most customers brought in. Oldfield was cagey about how his phrasing, but implied the new limits were meant to curtail the recycling black market.
“That could potentially affect the ‘business material’ coming in,” he said.
Closing recycling centers has deleterious effects on businesses as well: when they close, state law mandates that local shops pick up the slack. Mom and pop liquor stores, grocery stores, and most shops that sell cans and bottles would be required to buy-back cans and bottles (like a recycling center) or pay a $100 a day fee. That’s upwards of $35,000 a year.
The small business commission was so worried about the impact on independent store owners that they started an outreach program to educate them on their options just last year, which we’ve covered before.
But you know, at least people in the neighborhood won’t have to be subjected to poor people. That’s what matters, right?
In January, Mayor Ed Lee appeared on the PBS NewsHour to talk up the city’s Zero Waste program, an initiative to eliminate all landfilled garbage by 2020 by diverting 100 percent of the city’s municipal waste to recycling or compost. “We’re not going to be satisfied,” with the 80 percent waste diversion already achieved, Lee told program host Spencer Michels. “We want 100 percent zero waste. This is where we’re going.”
But somewhere in Te Anau, New Zealand, an environmental scholar tuning into an online broadcast of the program was having none of it. “I sat there thinking, no, you’re not. It would be great if you were, but you’re not — for obvious reasons,” said Robert Krausz, who’s working toward a PhD in environmental management, describing his reaction during a Skype call with the Bay Guardian.
Krausz, a Lincoln University scholar originally from Canada, spent three years studying municipal zero-waste initiatives internationally, and completed an in-depth, 40-page analysis of San Francisco’s Zero Waste program as part of his doctoral thesis.
He may as well have taken aim at a sacred cow. The city’s Zero Waste program has near-universal support among local elected officials, and has garnered no shortage of glowing media attention. San Francisco’s track record of diverting 80 percent of waste from the landfill is well ahead of the curve nationally, scoring 15 percent higher than Portland, Ore., a green hub of the Pacific Northwest, and 20 percentage points or higher above Seattle, according figures provided by Recology, San Francisco’s municipal waste hauler.
Despite the city’s well-earned green reputation, Krausz arrived at the pessimistic conclusion that “San Francisco’s zero waste to landfill by 2020 initiative is headed for failure.” In seven years’ time, he predicts, the program deadline will be marked with a day of reckoning rather than a celebratory gala. “I think the city is setting itself up,” Krausz told the Guardian. “Somebody’s going to be holding the bag in 2020.”
ANOTHER AFFLUENT CITY
Sporting a goatee and glasses, Krausz comes across as the type you might find locking up his bike outside a natural foods store with canvas bags at the ready. When he visited San Francisco, he said he was ready to be wowed by the example of an ecologically enlightened city, yet ultimately left in disappointment. “It was just another affluent American city, in terms of consumption.”
The problem, he argues, is that people are still buying way too much disposable stuff — and a significant amount can’t be recycled. Plastic bags, food wrapping, pantyhose, plastic film, pet waste, construction materials with resin in them (like the popular Trex decking), and particularly disposable diapers have nowhere to go but into the landfill.
San Francisco produces a total of about six kilograms of trash per person per day before diversion is factored in — three times the U.S. national average. That’s a sobering figure that puts a slight dent in the city’s eco-conscious image. It’s not really fair to denizens of the city by the Bay, because it counts trash generated by 20 million annual visitors, daytime employees, developers, and businesses as well as residents. Nevertheless, the trash output ranks well above the per capita average for the Eurozone, which clocks in at a minimalistic 0.5 kg per person per day.
The city has earned its bragging rights for making strides toward diverting waste from the landfill — yet truckloads of waste still leave the famously green city every day. Since 2003, Krausz notes, San Francisco’s overall waste generation has actually increased, from 1,900 to 2,200 kilograms per person per year. At the same time, the per capita amount of waste going into a landfill has dropped, from about 1,000 to 500 kilograms per year. That’s still a lot of garbage.
Krausz argues that San Francisco has no comprehensive plan for achieving Zero Waste, while at the same time having little control over “top of the pipe” consumption, which generates a glut of trash. “While the city has achieved success at managing waste at the end-of-pipe, it has thus far failed to address the fundamental problem of consumption, which is driving waste generation,” his study notes.
Guillermo Rodriguez and Jack Macy of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment counter that there is a strategy, involving a host of different measures ranging from education, to policy initiatives, to incentive programs aimed at reducing waste. They think zero waste is possible. “We’re probably at 99 percent diversion here in this office,” said Macy, who serves as the city’s Commercial Zero Waste Coordinator. “At least 90 percent of the discard stream is recyclable and compostable,” he added. And as for the last 10 percent, “that pie will be shrinking as we find more markets” for recyclables.
Krausz also raised skepticism about Recology’s bid for a landfill contract that would extend until 2025, five years beyond the deadline for all waste elimination. To that, Recology’s Eric Potashner responded that state law requires 15 years of disposal capacity to guarantee a safety net, regardless of municipal aspirations.
Krausz is critical of San Francisco officials for promising zero waste, but he acknowledges that manufacturers of disposable goods, not city officials, are to blame. Ambitious legislative measures such as San Francisco’s mandatory composting program and a ban on plastic bags have been enacted and achieved tangible results, but for items like ubiquitous thin-film plastics, dirty diapers, synthetic materials, and the like, good solutions have yet to be found.
Krausz’ study also determined that no city on the planet that’s set out to do so has ever actually succeeded at achieving zero waste. “If you are a city that is a member of Western civilization as we know it, you’re not going to be zero waste to landfill, because you participate in the global economy,” Krausz states plainly.
SF’S TRASH PIT
On a recent Friday morning, Recology’s Potashner and Paul Giusti led a tour of the city’s recycling and waste processing facilities. It featured a stop at the transfer station, housed in a large warehouse off of Tunnel Road where all the refuse from the black trash bins is deposited before being carted off to the Altamont Landfill. A sweet, pungent aroma hung in the air. “We call this the pit,” Giusti explained as we approached a sunken area that could have contained multiple Olympic-sized swimming pools, extending a story or two below us into the earth. “This is the last frontier,” Potashner added. “The last 20 percent.”
It was filled with an astonishing quantity of trash, making a tractor that ambled awkwardly over top the mound to compact it down appear toy-like in comparison. The sea of discarded material contained every hue, and floating around in the debris were orange juice containers, cardboard boxes, and thousands upon thousands of (banned) plastic bags. Between 200 and 300 garbage trucks eject their contents into the pit each day, and a single truck can hold up to four tons of trash.
Giusti started working for Recology, formerly NorCal Waste Systems, in 1978, following in the footsteps of his father. Back then, the pit was more like a mountain: “When I would dump my truck, I could walk up this pile,” he said, gesturing toward a set of sprinklers suspended from the ceiling to indicate how high it once extended. State data confirms the story: In 2011, according to CalReycle, San Francisco sent 446,685 tons of waste to the landfill. That number has steadily declined over time; in 2007, it stood at 628,914 tons.
Asked for his reaction to Krausz’s thesis that the Zero Waste program won’t ever actually get to zero, Guisti turned the question around by asking, what’s the harm in trying? “Let’s say you said, zero waste is unattainable,” he said. “Then what’s the number? I think zero waste is an ambitious goal — but if we get to 90 or 95 percent, what a tremendous achievement.” Setting the highest of bars is important, he said, because striving for it provides the motivation to keep diverting waste from the landfill.
In order to actually reduce the city’s garbage from 446,685 tons to zero in the next seven years, Zero Waste program partners Recology and San Francisco’s Department of the Environment face a twofold challenge. First, they must prevent compostable and recyclable material from getting into the landfill pile. Second, they must find solutions for diverting the waste that currently has nowhere else to go but the landfill. With a combination of seeking new markets for recyclables, using technology that can sort out the recyclable and compostable matter, and implementing incentives and educational outreach programs, they’re still focused on the goal. “It’s hard to tell how close we’ll get to zero in 2020,” Macy said. So even if zero waste does not actually mean zero waste in the end, that goal “sends a message that we want to move toward being as sustainable as we can.”
Now, I thought we were all going to have to pay money to read the wisdom of C.W. Nevius, but here it is, for free, right on sfgate: Nevius is calling on California to repeal the “bottle bill,” the measure that requires a (modest) deposit on cans and bottles and that has been widely credited for making this one of the leading places in the world for recycling.
His argument: People are stealing recyclable material and selling it. This leads to drugs. (Seriously, this leads to drugs: “It hurts everybody,” says Adam Alberti, a spokesman for Recology, the city’s garbage collection firm. “We have heard reports of (scavengers) being paid in drugs instead of cash.”)
And, of course, criminal syndicates that underpay desperate people. The old Haight Asbury Recycling Center, which Chuck hated so much, demonstrated how the syndicate racket doesn’t have to work, since small-time individual bottle-pickers could get there without a truck and keep all the money. Oh, but that was also leading to drugs. So now it’s gone. Amazing, Chuck, the law of unintended consequences.
Anyway: Criminal syndicates aren’t a good thing. Wall Street, for example. Certain landlords and businesses that prey on the weak and don’t pay their taxes. Or the people who cheat their low-wage trash-diving workers.
But on the scale of all the things wrong in the world, and the city, this has to be pretty small-time. Because the bottom line for me is this:
The stuff is getting recycled.
That’s what we want, right? We don’t want bottles and cans in a landfill. From a strictly environmental viewpoint, it makes no difference if Recology picks the stuff up and makes money off it, or if a poor person picks up the stuff and makes money (except not in the Haight any more) or if some explotive syndicate hires people to pick the stuff up. It gets to the same place.
Again: Not supporting the criminal syndicates. Their workers should get fair pay, like all workers. Still, repealing the bottle bill seems like a pretty crazy way to address this modest problem.
Yes, your garbage rates are going up. As much as 23 percent, maybe. That’s what Recology, the local trash monopoly, announced March 15.
The rate hike isn’t as bad as some people expected, nor is it as high as earlier predictions. More important, the way the company charges for the three bins we all use is going to change rather profoundly: No more free recycling and compost bins, but you can save money if you cut back on the amount of unrecyclable crap you shouldn’t buy anyway that’s headed to the landfill.
Here’s how it’s going to work:
Instead of paying $27.31 a month flat rate for garbage service, every household (and every apartment unit) will pay a $5 a month fee, plus $2 for every standard-sized green (compost) bin and recycling (blue) bin. Then there’s a $25.51 charge for a 32-gallon black (landfill) bin.
You can downsize to a 20-gallon black bin and upsize your recycling and compost to 64 gallons (that’s a LOT of compost for a city dweller; dude, quit throwing so much food away) and the monthly tab would be $26.94 — a little less than what you pay today.
The idea is that the city has mandated Recology to reach the level of zero waste — that is, 100 percent diversion away from landfill — by 2020, which means there won’t be any black bins any more, and an economic model based on charging for a service that won’t exist isn’t going to work.
Plus, the cost of fuel is going up, labor costs continue to increase, etc. We all know the story.
We also know that Recology never has to bid on the lucrative deal to collect waste in the city, and recently defeated a ballot measure that would have required competitive bidding. And unlike garbage companies in other cities (and other companies like Comcast and PG&E, that do business on city streets), Recology pays no franchise fee.
To make the whole garbage thing more complicated, a group from Yuba County is suing to overturn the deal that will allow Recology to haul San Francisco landfill waste 125 miles north to the Ostrum Road landfill in Wheatland. It’s really complicated, but essentially Recology did have to bid on that part of the deal (since the waste hauling takes place out of the city), won the bid against Waste Management, Inc., and is going to be loading about 400,000 tons of waste onto a rail line out to Wheatland.
This is, if the San Francisco Superior Court doesn’t toss the deal on the grounds that the Environmental Impact Report wasn’t adequate.
The Yuba Group Against Garbage petition for an injunction will be argued March 27 — and in the meantime, the group, along with some San Francisco advocates, is calling for the city to re-open the bidding process. YuGAG, obviously, doesn’t want the Ostrum Road Landfill to expand. The group’s lawyer, Brigit S. Barnes, sent out a statement March 20 outlining here case:
By failing to conduct any environmental review prior to its decision to enter into a Facilitation Agreement with Recology San Francisco, the City violated procedures clearly defined by CEQA, the terms for its own Request for Proposal, and the City’s own Administrative Code. Approving the project prior to completing a satisfactory CEQA review amounts to a failure to proceed in a manner required by law. The City’s subsequent attempt to fix the CEQA violation by terminating the 10-year agreement with Recology is ineffective because the statutorily mandated order of actions [first to certify the EIR document and then to consider the project, including any essential mitigations] is reversed.
Waste Management Inc., tried unsuccessfully to block the deal; WMI, which runs the landfill in Alameda County, wants the city’s trash to continue going there, which isn’t a perfect option either (and WMI is hardly a flawless company). So garbage is a mess. What else is new.
On the Cheap listings by Cortney Clift. Submit items for the listings at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information on how to submit items for the listings, see Picks.
“From Vision to Icon: Building the Golden Gate Bridge” Sports Basement, 1590 Bryant, SF. www.sfwalksandtalks.com. 7pm, free. Local writer, producer, and narrator Peter Moylan presents the story of the Golden Gate Bridge, exploring all the triumphs and challenges encountered throughout its creation The lecture will be told with over 120 historic photos in the live documentary style SF Walks and Talks is known for.
“Pixilated Drift” Johansson Projects, 2300 Telegraph, Oakl. www.johanssonprojects.net. Through March 16. Noon-6pm, free. The show will feature Andrew Benson’s hypnotic pixel prints, David O’ Brien’s explosive and abstract video stills, and Tamara Albaitis’ sound sculptures, sure to be as entrancing and mysterious to look at as they are to listen to.
“Full Wolf Moon” Cotton Mill Studios, 1091 Calcot, Oakl. www.f3oakland.com. 6-10pm, free. F3 at the Cotton Mill will be showing off resident and guest artists’ new work in the collective’s eighth event. The evening will be a bit of a cultural smorgasbord with various galleries and studios open throughout the building, live music, dance, and spoken word in the “Wolf Den,” a design bazaar, and food trucks. Free shuttle transportation will be provided to the Cotton Mill Studios from the Fruitvale BART station from 6-10:30pm.
Fundraiser for KPOO Radio Mercury Café, 201 Page, SF. 7-10pm, free. For over 40 years local nonprofit radio station has been discussing issues facing underserved communities such as GLBT folks, low-income families and young people as well as playing music largely absent in mainstream media. But KPOO has recently lost a significant source of funding due to budget cuts. Head over to Mercury Café for a night of food, drinks, and music to help keep the station on the air. 10 percent of all sales will go to KPOO.
“Deviant Type Press Benefit Show” Temescal Arts Center, 511 Eighth St., Oakl. 7pm, $10 donation suggested. Hosted by Jezebel Delilah X, this evening will consist of readings by Mia McKenzie, fat activist Virgie Tovar, Sister Spit-Valencia queer author Michelle Tea, and Manish Vaidya. After the readings Bay Area band Gaymous rocks.
“All You Can Dance” Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, 26 Seventh St., fifth floor, SF. www.linesballet.org. 1-5pm, $5. Whether you’ve been itching to brush up on your ballet skills or wanting to test your talent in Zimbabwean dance, the $5 entry fee allows you try out any and all classes on today’s schedule. Offering everything from Bollywood dance to Pilates to Argentinean tango, you’re free to dance ’til you drop.
Roe Vs. Wade 40th anniversary celebration Justin Herman Plaza, SF. www.oursilverribbon.org. 10am-noon, free. Reproductive rights pioneer Pat Maginnis, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors David Chiu, and other speakers will be addressing women’s issues today in remembrance of the legendary court case that gave us our reproductive rights. It may not technically be a carnival, but there will be face-paining, airbrush tattoos, balloon artists, a bubble artist, and a performance by One Billion Rising, a radical gang of flash mobbers.
“San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía’s Inaugural Address” San Francisco Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin, SF. www.sfpl.org. 1-3pm, free. Murguía will give his inaugural address as the city’s sixth poet laureate and speak about the connection Latino history and San Francisco history have to one another as well as how poetry has affected the local Latino community. A reception will follow his wise words, so you’ll have ample time to chew them over.
“Drunken Spelling Bee” Café Royal, 800 Post, SF. www.caferoyale-sf.com. 6pm, free. Hosted by Jimi Moran, this event is exactly what it sounds like. Maybe you dominated in your sixth grade spelling bee, but how are your skills after a few beers? No iPhone spell checks allowed.
“Oakland Youth Orchestra ‘Russian Romance’ Winter Concert” Holy Names University, 3500 Mountain, Oakl. www.oyo.org. 3pm, free. Get classy Sunday afternoon at what is sure to be something far better than an average high-school music recital. The 75 musicians who make up the Oakland Youth Orchestra range from ages 12 to 22 but possess musical skills far beyond their years. The concert will include festive pieces by Dimitri Shostakovich, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Rachmaninov.
Berkeley Arts & Letters presentsAdam Mansbach’s Rage is Back The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston, Berk. www.berkeleyarts.org. 7:30pm, $5/students, $12/advance. The author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Go the F**k to Sleep is back to tell the story of a clever kid, the father who left him, and the greatest graffiti stunt New York City has ever seen in his new book titled Rage is Back. Today Mansbach will read and discuss his new release. The Marsh Cabaret Bar will be open before, during, and after the program.
Recology art exhibit and panel discussion Reception at 503 Tunnel, SF. 5-7pm, free. Panel discussion at 401 Tunnel, SF. 7pm, free. Exhibition also on display Fri/25, 5-9pm; Sat/26, 1-3pm. www.recologysf.com. Recology’s artist in residence program will exhibit work created by Michael Damm, Julia Goodman, and Jeff Hantman over the past four months, made from scavenged materials found at the dump. After the exhibit, head a few doors down to catch the artists talking about their experience working to create art in trashland.
About 20 activist gardeners were thrown out of the old Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC) Recycling Center space today, when Sheriff’s Department deputies and four park rangers surrounded the old HANC site and ordered them to leave.
It’s the second eviction on the same site this winter, as the recycling center that has been there for over 30 years before being ousted by city officials responding to neighborhood complaints about low-income recyclers. HANC was initially evicted on Dec. 27. In the wake of its closure, about 20 or so renegade gardeners set up a campground with their own urban gardening center in the space — with free seeds, soil, mulch and borrowable gardening tools for the community.
The gardeners, wrapped in sleeping bags and inside tents, had a rude awakening this morning around 6am. At least 30 members of the Sheriff’s Department, led by Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, announced that they were trespassing and had five minutes to leave.
“It was right at sun-up, and I was in my sleeping bag,” said Joash Bekele, a 28 year old environmental activist. “We thought they were coming [yesterday], we were up all night — worrying that they’d come.”
They didn’t have long to gather their gear, and a lot of their tools were left in the now locked HANC site, said Ryan Rising, one of the key organizers of the group. Most importantly, they lost their newly built miniature greenhouse, which they constructed themselves.
“A lot of this is about food justice,” Rising said. It’s a better alternative to the community garden that the Recreation and Parks Department (RPD) plans to build in the space, he said, because it would encourage community input in everything they do.
“It would be a neighborhood space,” he said.
RPD officials did not respond to emails before press time (UPDATED BELOW).
The group is now out on the sidewalk beside HANC, on Frederick Street. Along the fence of the old recycling center sits bags of soil and mulch, books on gardening, and a sign that reads “Welcome to the Golden Gate Recology Center.”
The now-evicted gardeners answered questions about gardening from passers by, and offered tips on sustainable cooking and gardening to anyone who happens by with a question.
The group of “renegade gardeners” are meeting tonight to discuss their next plan of action, which may include staying on the sidewalk outside HANC, or finding a new space altogether, Rising said.
The Sheriffs Department didn’t reach us by press time for comment (UPDATED BELOW), nor did Mirkarimi. A park ranger at the site, William Ramil, said that the eviction was a peaceful, orderly one.
As Ramil described the scene, we stood outside the locked gate to HANC. Three cars pulled up, a Lexus, a Saturn, and a Honda Hybrid, all customers looking for the recycling center.
Andrew Herwitz, behind the wheel of the Saturn, was surprised to see HANC closed. “Having places that are community-run are so important,” he said.
He said he was heading to the Safeway on Market Street with his recycling now, begrudgingly.
UPDATE 1/7: Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Kathy Gorwood disputed reports that there were about 30 deputies at the scene, but confirmed that the evictions were peaceful and with no arrests made, declining further comment. RPD spokesperson Sarah Ballard told us, “The Department is pleased to be moving forward with the neighborhood-supported plan for a community garden at the site.”
As expected, Recology sent in its application for a rate increase Dec. 11, and most residential customers will see a hike of 23.5 percent, or about $6.50 a month. The hikes will be more complicated for commercial operations and apartment buildings, depending largely on how much waste those outfits can divert into recycling or compost.
The proposal would change the way rates are charged: Residential customers, who now pay a fee for the black cans holding landfill-bound garbage, will start paying a monthly $5 fee overall and $2 for compost and recycling.
The most dramatic increases will fall on large apartment buildings, which under the current rate structure are heavily subsidized, Eric Potashner, a spokesperson for Recology, told me. “We needed to restructure so the larger residential sector was paying fairly,” he said.
Most large landlords absorb the cost of garbage service as part of the rent they charge. So the new costs may not get passed on to existing tenants.
Recology is facing a mandate to eliminate all landfill waste by 2020 — and that’s a bit of a problem: For years, the company only charged for black bins, which, if all goes according to plan, will eventually go away altogether. “And the trucks, the fuel costs, the drivers are all color-blind,” Potashner said. “It costs the same to pick up the blue bins as the black bins.”
The rate application is complicated, and I haven’t been able to analyze every page. The city has hired an outside contractor to do exactly that, and the process takes months. The current proposal would take effect in June, 2013.
It’s a significant increase, although not as high as some had predicted — and not as high as 2001, when the company asked for almost 50 percent. Back then city staffers recommended the hike be cut almost in half, but then-Public Works Director Ed Lee gave Recology most of what it wanted.
Some of the money will go to cover additional costs Recology faces since the city has asked the company to pick up large refuse (you know, those old couches) that are left on the street.
But overall, according to Recology’s application, the higher rates cover “increased costs and lower than anticipated revenues” — in other words, the sucess of the recycling program has meant less income for the garbage company. Still, while Recology is a private company that doesn’t release financial information, there’s no indication that it’s actually running in the red.
Recology, the city’s garbage monopoly, has a problem: It charges residential customers only for the black cans full of unrecyclable material headed for the landfill — but thanks to city policy and environmental consciousness, there’s less and less traditional trash out there. Ultimately, the company wants to get rid of the big black cans altogether.
So a business model based on offering free recycling and compost doesn’t work any more — and everyone has known for some time that it had to change.
But there was no discussion of rate changes earlier this year; in fact, Recology folks said there were no plans for an immediate rate hike in the works. That’s because the June ballot included a measure that would have created competitive bidding for the city’s garbage contract — and the last thing Recology wanted was the threat of a rate hike to drive voters toward amending the 1932 City Charter provision that gives just one company complete control over the lucrative waste franchise.
Ah, but the June election is long over, and Recology beat back that effort — so the rate hike we all expected is now on the table.
On Sept. 11, Recology informed the city that it intends to apply for a new rate structure — and while the process is long and convoluted, we’ll see the details in a few weeks, and you can expect to start paying more for your service by next summer.
There’s no formal proposal yet — that will come in December. The director of the Department of Public Works has to approve it, and so does a Rate Board made up of the city administration, the controller and the head of the Public Utilities Commission. But both Recology and the city say there will be some significant changes in the way San Franciscans pay to have their refuse removed.
“We can’t focus our financial operations on a black can if we’re trying to get rid of it,” Recology spokesperson Eric Potashner told us.
Douglas Legg, the finance director at the Department of Public Works agrees. “As we’ve been pushing diversion, the blue and green cans have been pretty heavily subsidized.”
But shouldn’t good habits, like recycling, be subsidized? Should people who recycle and compost more be penalized? “That’s the challenge,” Potashner said.
And in the end, it’s going to be more than a shift in which bins cost how much. There’s no doubt that your bills will be rising, perhaps by a significant amount. “I assume it will go up,” Legg said. “There hasn’t been a cost-of-living increase since 2010.”
Which, of course, brings back the competitive bidding point. If others had a chance to make a play for the city contract, might rates be lower? Or might the city get more out of the deal?
Retired Judge Quentin Kopp, who helped spearhead the campaign for competitive bidding, thinks so. “If we had competitive bidding,” he told us, “these rate hikes would be more moderate.”
OPENING THE LAST CLOSET DOOR
While most everyone’s attention was focused on electoral politics in late October, Supervisors David Campos and Christina Olague were talking about a different level of political issue, one that’s still a huge taboo: Gay men in professional sports. At an Oct. 30 press conference, the two LGBT supes joined with representatives of The Last Closet, an SF-based campaign that’s trying to get gay professional athletes to come out.
It’s remarkable (or maybe, sadly, it isn’t) that in 2012, not one openly gay man has played in any of the Big Five pro sports (football, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer). There are, everyone knows, plenty of gay athletes, and the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and various soccer associations all have gay players. Some of them have come out after they’ve retired. But on the field (or on the floor, or on the ice)? No way.
Why does anyone care? Because youth sports are still, even in this town, full of homophobic language and homophobic attitudes, and it’s hard to imagine what young LGBT football or basketball players have to endure. Even one gay player could make a world of difference.
“What I saw with the San Francisco Giants, all of the Latino players, was such a source of pride to Latino boys and girls,” Campos told us. “We can’t feel that in the LGBT community. We know there are gay baseball players, but the LGBT youth don’t have those role models to look up to.”
The Last Closet campaign emerged out of a documentary film project that sought to look at homophobia in pro sports. “It became clear that some members of the sports hierarchy were not going to make themselves available to speak about this taboo subject,” the group’s website notes.
In fact, Fawn Yacker, one of the project directors, told us that nobody in a senior position in any sports organization was willing to talk — and that’s turned the movie into a political campaign. “We want the fans to push the sports leaders to address this,” she said.
In fact, all The Last Closeters want right now is for the commissioners of the major sports leagues to make a statement that homophobia is unacceptable and that the leagues will do everything possible to make sure that out gay players are accepted. Seems like a pretty simply no-brainer — but so far, not one sports official has gone along.
It’s pretty crazy, considering that it’s almost inevitable that a few major sports athletes will come out in the next few years — and the leagues are going to look foolish if they pretend it’s not going to happen. Any bets on which sport is going to be the first? “I don’t know,” Yackey said. “I think it might be hockey.”
Recology, the San Francisco garbage monopoly, usually comes to the city to ask for a rate increase once every five years or so. It’s been almost seven since the last one — and it’s not as if the company’s costs have come down. Anyone who’s running big diesel trucks and paying for fuel has been hammered in the past year or two.
Well, for one thing, there was a ballot measure back in June that would have broken up the lucrative monopoly and opened the waste-removal franchise to competitive bidding. That’s Recology’s worst nightmare. Since 1932, the company (through its predecessors) has had the exclusive right to pick up residential and commercial refuse in San Francisco; unlike virtually every other outfit that does this level of business with the city, the contract never comes up for renewal and nobody else ever gets to bid. There’s virtually no chance that anyone but Recology would ever win a bid for the deal anyway — we’re talking about a unionized, worker-owned local company, and all of the other big garbage outfits are nasty out-of-state operations with bad management and environmental records. But if there were other bidders, Recology might have to sweenten the city’s deal — keep the rates lower or give some more money to City Hall.
Your rates won’t actually go up for a while — the process is long and complicated and both Recology and the Department of Public Works agree that the earliest any new pricing would go into effect would be next summer. We won’t actually see a firm proposal until December.
But already, the company’s talking about ending the current practice of charging for the black (garbage-to-the-landfill) cans and picking up recycling and compost free. The city and the company are both trying to reduce the amount of landfill material that gets discarded — and ultimately, everyone would like to eliminate the black cans altogether. But that, Recology spokesperson Eric Potashner told me, doesn’t work with the current business model: “We can’t rocus our financial operations on a black can if we’re trying to get rid of it.”
Which leads to a dilemma: If you want people to recycle and compost more, how do you get away with charging them more to do it? “That’s the challenge,” Potashner said.
Either way, the rates are going to go up. “There hasn’t been a cost-of-living increase since 2010,” Douglas Legg, finance director at DPW, told us. The increase might be fairly steep, too — after all, it’s been seven years since the last one.
All of which comes back to the competitive bidding question. If this weren’t a monopoly, and Recology had to compete for the contract every once in a while, “these rate hikes might be more moderate,” retired Judge Quentin Kopp, a longtime critic of the company, told us.
The Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s (HANC) Recycling Center has fought for the past decade to stay in its tiny corner of Golden Gate Park, behind Kezar stadium, and it may be days from closing. It’s been served with eviction notices from the city and weathered political tirades from politicians on pulpits, and most recently, saw its eviction appeal denied by California’s Supreme Court.
The recycling center, which has been in operation since 1974, wouldn’t be the only loss to the Haight either. Both a community garden and San Francisco native plant nursery are on the site, under the umbrella name of Kezar Gardens. After an eviction for the recycling center, all three would go.
So in what may be their last days, the Guardian decided to take a look at who is a part of the recycling center’s community. What keeps them coming back – even in the face of eviction? While the final eviction date is nebulous, the reasons for it are not: as the Haight gentrified, more and more neighbors complained about the site’s surrounding homeless population, the noise the recycling center makes, and every other NIMBY complaint in the book.
Contrary to the usual complaints of the recycling center and gardens attracting numerous homeless people, the people detailed in the stories below reflect a diverse community. And there were far more stories that we didn’t include: the busy head of a nonprofit who gardens to keep his sanity, or the two brothers who bring in their recyclables every week as a way for their parents to teach them responsibility. And they’re not the only people who depend on the recycling center and gardens.
“One of the problems [with evicting HANC] is that the small businesses in the area depend on the service of the center,” Sup. Christina Olague, who representing the area, told us. “We don’t want to see it relocated out of the area.”
Olague said that although ideas for a mobile recycling center or a relocation have been batted around, nothing is concrete yet. The Mayor’s Office, the Recreations and Parks Department, and HANC were all going to have more meetings and try to come to a solution that would benefit all sides, she said.
The recycling center and gardens aren’t going down without their supporters making a clamor. They developed a feature documentary about their struggles, titled 780 Frederick. Directed by Soumyaa Kapil Behrens, the film will play at the San Francisco International Film Festivals “Doc Fest” on Nov. 11.
Until then, here’s a glimpse at some of the people who make up the community at the HANC Recycling Center and Kezar Gardens.
Greg Gaar, Native Plant Nursery Caretaker
Longtime groundskeeper and recycling guru Greg Gaar will soon be out of a job, only a year after single-handedly starting a native plant nursery in the Haight Ashbury that serves more than 100 people.
Gaar is the caretaker of the Kezar Garden nursery. He raises Dune Tansy, Beach Sagewort, Coast Buckwheat and Bush Monkey – all plants originally born and bred from the dunes of old San Francisco.
“I do it because I worship nature, to me that’s god,” Gaar said. He spoke of the plants reverently.
The native plants aren’t as bombastically colorful as the rest of Golden Gate Park, he said, which Gaar calls “European pleasure gardens,” but they’re hearty and durable, like Gaar himself.
Gaar has a weathered face from years of working in the open air, and he grinned large as he talked about his plants. His grey beard comes down a few inches, giving him the look of a spry Santa Claus. Gaar has a history of embracing the counterculture, much like the Haight itself. In 1977, he made his first foray into activism.
At the time, wealthy developers in the city wanted to develop buildings and houses on Tank Hill, one of the few remaining lands of San Francisco with native growth. “Two percent of the city right now has native plants,” he said. It’s a travesty to him, but he did his part to prevent it.
Gaar led the charge against the redevelopers by putting up posters and flyers, and fighting them tooth and nail for the land through old fashioned San Francisco rallying.
In the end, the counterculture activists won, and the city of San Francisco bought the land back from the developers, keeping it for the public trust. The long-ago battle over Tank Hill was a victory, but the fight for the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center may already be lost.
Gaar has deep ties to the recycling center. Among his friends are two ravens, Bobbie and Regina, who recognize Gaar since the first time he fed them 16 years ago. Occasionally, he says, they’ll accompany him on his rounds around the park. The ravens aren’t the only friends he’s made through the recycling center.
They have many patrons looking to make a few bucks off of cans and bottles, many of which are poverty-struck or homeless. Gaar darkened as he spoke of them, because over the years he has lost many friends he’s made through work. The recycling center is a community, and those that are lost are often memorialized in the garden that Gaar grew with his own hands.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist C. W. Nevius frequently calls out the nursery as a “last ditch effort” on the part of the recycling center to stave off closure and legitimize its own existence. In reality, the nursery was brainstormed years before the controversy through Gaar’s inspiration.
Though Nevius may not agree with the ethos Gaar has brought to the recycling center, the city of San Francisco must trust him. The Recreation and Parks Department has offered him a job planting native plants around Golden Gate Park, which is Gaar is welcome to after the recycling center closes. But taking care of native plants is more than a job to Gaar, it’s a calling.
“Isn’t it amazing that we exist on one of the sole planets we know of that supports life?” Gaar said with wide eyes. He sees his job as preserving the natural order, working to keep alive the plants that were part of the city before the first arrival of the spaniards.
Gaar, much like his plants, is part of a shrinking population of the city: the San Francisco native. When the recycling center closes, he’ll be able to spread native plants across Golden Gate Park, another rebel cause in a life of green activism.
Kristy Zeng, loyal daughter
Kristy Zeng, 30, talked about everything she does for her family in a matter of fact tone, as if none of it took effort, patience or loyalty.
As she talked, Zeng unloaded over six trash cans worth of recyclables into colored bins. At home, she has two young girls waiting for her, ages three and one, she said. The money she gets from the recyclables is small, but necessary – not for herself, but for her mother.
“My mom’s primary job is this one,” she said. Zeng’s mother is 62 and speaks no English. In the eight years she’s been in San Francisco since immigrating from China, she hasn’t been able to find a job.
“People look at her and say she’s too old,” Zeng said. “She’s too near retirement age.”
So Zeng’s mother hauls cans in her shopping cart every day to earn her keep. She’s one of the folks you can spot around town foraging in bins outside people’s homes, collecting recyclables from picnic-goers in parks, and asking for empties from local bars. The money she earns is just enough to pay for her food.
Even between her husband’s two jobs, Zeng said her family doesn’t have quite enough to fully support her mother. The recyclable collecting is vital income, Zeng said. She and her extended family all live in the Sunset and Outer Richmond, though she wishes they could find a place big enough to live together.
The Haight Ashbury Recycling Center is just close enough to make the chore worth the trip. Zeng was surprised to hear that the center was near closure.
“I would have to find a job,” she said. She usually watches her infant and toddler while her husband is at work. “Mom can’t babysit them, her back isn’t so good. It’s too hard.”
It’s not so bad though, she said, because at 30 years old, Zeng is still young and can handle the extra work. But if the recycling center closed, Zeng and her mom would both have to find a new way to make ends meet.
Steven and Brian Guan learn responsibility
At about five feet tall, wearing an oversized ball-cap and dwarfed by the man-sized jacket he wore, Brian Guan, 12, definitely stood out at the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center. All around him, grisly old men hauled bins full of cans and bottles – but he didn’t pay them any mind.
Brian had his older brother Steven Guan, 14, to look out for him. Together they hauled in four bags worth of recyclables in plastic bags, walking straight to the empty bins as if it were a routine they’d done a dozen times before.
Which, of course, they had.
“I’ve been doing this for at least a year,” Steven said. Though he looks totally comfortable, the chore definitely introduced him to a different crowd than he’s used to.
The recycling center’s clientele of homeless folks, and people generally older than 14, don’t really bother him, he said. “It’s kinda weird, but it’s no big deal.” Besides, he said, he’s happy to help out his family, who spend a lot of time working.
“My mom works in a hotel, and she collects the cans and stuff there.” His dad does the same.
Their mom is a maid, and dad is a bellhop, working in separate hotels downtown. Steven didn’t know if the money they collect each week was vital for his family’s income, but he does know that the haul isn’t very much.
“It’s usually only like $10,” he said.
So was it even worth the trip? Steven said that if he wasn’t helping out his parents by bringing in recyclables, he’d probably be “at home doing nothing.” A Washington High School student, he doesn’t play on any sports teams and isn’t in any clubs. He spends the majority of his time helping out his family.
The way he figures it, he said, the chore is meant to teach him responsibility.
It looks like it worked.
Dennis Horsluy, a principled man
A lot of the patrons haul cans and bottles to the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center out of need: to feed themselves, clothe themselves, and live. Dennis Horsluy, 44, does not count himself as one of those people.
“It’s pocket change,” Horsluy said. But despite the cost, he’s going to get every red penny back from the government that he’s owed through the California Redemption Value charges on cans and bottles. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Horsluy said that Sunset Scavenger, now known as Recology, has a stranglehold on San Francisco’s recycling and trash.
“If you leave your recyclables on the curb, it’s like taxation without representation,” he said. You pay for it whether you want to or not. In his own version of “sticking it to the man,” Horsluy makes sure his recycling dollars get back into his hands.
Horsluy is a displaced auto-worker who has only just recently found work again. “I made plenty, and now I make nothing,” he said.
A family man, he has a daughter at Lowell High School, and a son at Stuart Hall High School. He thinks San Francisco has problems much weightier than closing the recycling center, such as the school lottery system that almost had him sending his kids far across town for school.
Horsluy wasn’t surprised that some of the Haight locals had managed to finally oust the recycling center, considering they’ve been complaining for years about how it attracts many of the local homeless population to the area. “I’m sure it’s a problem for the neighbors with their million-dollar homes,” he said.
But the homeless were a problem long before the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center, Horsluy said. San Francisco has a history of generosity, and so it draws more of the needy. Horsluy will be fine without the recycling center, he said, but the more poverty stricken patrons of the center may not be.
“They’re just trying to survive.”
Chris Dye, gardening his troubles away
Some people drink to forget. Chris Dye, 44, does something similar — he gardens to forget.
While watering the plot of greens he calls his own, Dye spun a yarn that sounded like a San Francisco version of a country song. His ex-wife bleeds his paychecks dry, and he had to leave his dream job at the National Parks Service to make ends meet in Information Technology, a job he pictures as the last place he’d like to be.
He regained a bit of peace in his ordeals through a hardcore passion for San Francisco native plants. “I found a rare kind of phacelia clinging to life in the cement at City College,” Dye said. “You know, down by the art building? When I saw it, I sketched it.”
A day later though it was gone, he said. He fell silent in what was almost a reverent moment for the rare native plant he spotted. Dye is on a personal mission to revive native San Franciscan plants.
The Kezar Gardens give Dye a chance to grow for himself all the interesting native plants he’s interested in. Inspired by the native plant nursery’s caretaker, Greg Gaar, he rattles off all the near-extinct species he’s been able to see and raise. “For me, it’s a personal experiment to figure all this out.”
It’s not all about leafy activism though. Sometimes, it’s just about a good meal. Dye snapped off a leaf and crushed it with his fingers. “This is Hummingbird Sage,” he said, holding it up to his nose for a sniff. “Mix this into a little olive oil, and rub it all over your pot roast, or whatever. It’s fucking amazing.”
Lael and Genevieve Dasgupta
Four-year-old Genevieve marched around the table by the garden, watching as a woman carves a pumpkin for Halloween.
Genevieve and her mother, Lael Dasgupta, recycle there in the Haight once a week, as part of Dasgupta’s hope to get her to learn at a young age about eco-responsibility. They don’t use one of the garden plots in the community garden, because they have a communal backyard at home. They do use some of Greg Gaar’s native plants in their garden, for decoration.
Dasgupta has mostly practical reasons for recycling. “It brings us about $40 to $50 a week… That’s a lot of money,” Dasgupta said.
But despite the location of several other recycling centers in the city, why does Dasgupta bring Genevieve here?
“Dirt, dirt dirt,” she said. “Its just good for her to play in the dirt, and build a healthy immune system. The other recycling centers aren’t as charming.”
Dasgupta said that if Kezar Gardens and the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center were to close, she wouldn’t relish taking her daughter out to the Bayview recycling center. She’s been there, and didn’t enjoy the experience. It’s easy to see that the two are comfortable at Kezar Gardens. Folks around the gardens all seem to know Genevieve, who marches around the place without fear.
The woman who was carving the pumpkins handed one to Genevieve for her to play with. The young girl promptly set to the pumpkin with a marker, making what could be either a set of incomprehensible squiggly lines, or the Milky Way galaxy, depending on your perspective.
Realtors and commercial landlords have transformed the supervisorial race in District 1 into an important battle over rent control and tenants’ rights, despite their onslaught of deceptive mailers that have sought to make it about everything from potholes and the Richmond’s supposed decline to school assignments and economic development.
It’s bad enough that groups like the Coalition for Sensible Government – a front group for the San Francisco Association of Realtors, which itself is in the middle of internal struggles over its increasing dominance by landlords rather than Realtors – have been funding mailers attacking incumbent Eric Mar on behalf of downtown’s candidate: David Lee. Combined spending by Lee and on his behalf is now approaching an unheard of $400,000 (we’ll get more precise numbers tomorrow when the latest pre-election campaign finance statements are due).
What’s even more icky and unsettling is the fact that Lee – a political pundit who has been regularly featured in local media outlets in recent years, usually subtly attacking progressives while trying to seem objective – has refused to answer legitimate questions about his shady background and connections or the agenda he has for the city. He refused to come in for a Guardian endorsement interview or even to respond to our questions. His campaign manager, Thomas Li, told me Lee is too busy campaigning to answer questions from reporters, but he assured me that Lee will be more accessible and accountable once he’s elected.
Somehow, I don’t find that very reassuring. But I can understand why Lee is ducking questions and just hoping that the avalanche of mailers will be enough to win this one. In a city where two-thirds of residents rent, but where landlords control most of the city’s wealth, it’s politically risky to be honest about a pro-landlord agenda.
“It’s pretty clear that is a real estate-tenant battleground,” Ted Gullicksen, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, told us. “District 1 is all about rent control, really. If David Lee wins, we’ll see the Board of Supervisors hacking away at rent control protections. The only question is whether it will be a severe hack or outright repeal.”
Real estate and development interests have already been able to win over Sups. Jane Kim and Christina Olague on key votes – and even Mar, who has disappointed many progressives on some recent votes, which many observers believe is the result of the strong challenge by Lee and his allies – but an outright flip of District 1 could really be dangerous.
“I want people to know how high the stakes are in this election. I want people to know that outside special interests are trying to buy this election,” Mar told us.
Mar is far from perfect, but at least he’s honest and accessible. With all the troublesome political meddling that we’ve seen in recent years from Willie Brown and Rose Pak on behalf of their corporate clients, particularly commercial landlords – which has been a big issue in District 5 this election and the mayor’s race last year – progressives were disturbed by rumors that Pak is helping Mar.
When we asked him about it, he didn’t deny it or evade the issue. “Yes, I have the support of just about all the Chinatown leaders, including Rose Pak,” Mar told us. “I’m proud to have a strong Chinese base of support.”
When asked about that support and how it will shape his votes, Mar noted that he also has strong support from labor and progressives, and that he will be far stronger on development and tenants issues than Lee. “I view myself as an independent, thoughtful supervisor who works very hard for the neighborhood,” Mar said. “There’s an accusation [in mailers paid for the Realtors] that the Richmond has become unlivable, and that’s just not true.”
We have a stack of official documents showing how Lee has used his Chinese-American Voter Education Project and his appointment to the Recreation and Parks Commission to personally enrich himself and his wife, using donations from rich corporations and individuals whose bidding he then does, and we mentioned some of that in our endorsements this week. We’ll continue seeking answers from Lee and his allies about their agenda for the city.
In fact, just as I was writing this post, Lee sent a message to supporters responding to our editorial and other efforts to raise these issues. “I know it is shocking, but while working as a full-time employee for CAVEC for the last twenty years, I was paid a salary. But let me tell you this was no six figure job with benefits,” he wrote. Actually, CAVEC’s federal 990 form shows he was paid $90,000 per year, while his wife, Jing Lee, was paid up to $65,000 per year as “program director” up until 2006.
“We did not receive any money from the government. All of our activities were funded by private donations and grants and our finances were audited on a regular basis,” Lee wrote, not noting that he has refused to make public a full list of his donors, although we know from a 2001 report in Asian Week that they included Chevron, Wells Fargo, Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Marriott, Levi Strauss, Norcal Waste Management (now known as Recology), State Farm, and the late philanthropist Warren Hellman, who at the time was funding downtown attacks on progressives through groups including the Committee on Jobs.
District 1 has always been an important San Francisco battleground. During the decade that progressives had a majority on the Board of Supervisors, District 1 was represented first by Jake McGoldrick and then by Mar. Neither McGoldrick nor Mar always voted with the progressives, yet McGoldrick had to endure two failed recall drives funded by business and conservative interests.
Now, they have increased their bet, raising the question that President Barack Obama posed in last night’s presidential debate: “Are we going to double down on the top down policies that got us into this mess?”
But she’s not giving up: As the session winds down, she’s done the ol’ gut and amend and created AB 845, which looks pretty much like the bill she hasn’t been able to get through committee. And she got this reborn Dracula of a bill it through the state Senate, which means she just needs concurrence at the Assembly, and away she goes.
Ma says that garbage is a statewide concern — true, as far as it goes — but she’s also helping Recology avoid problems in Solano County, where local residents want a cap on the amount of outside garbage trucked in from other places (like San Francisco) and buried in Solano landfills.
And the garbage giant hasn’t even been her biggest campaign contributor. Her non-campaign for state Senate got $1,500, her campaign for state Board of Equalization got $500, and she picked up $3,000 more in her Assembly races.
If you want to know what American politics looks like in a post-Citizens United world, check out the June 5 elections.
It’s not that this specific court case played a role in all of the key races — the tobacco industry could have spent $47 million to defeat a cigarette tax with or without Citizens United — but around the country, you saw the role that big money played in literally altering the political landscape.
In California, Prop. 29, which would have put a $1 tax on each pack of cigarettes to pay for cancer research, was way ahead in the polls, and I was pretty sure it was going to win handily — how can you vote against a tax on a product that kills people to fund a cure for the disease it causes? Prop. 29 had a 30-point lead a couple of months ago.
Then came the blitz — $47 million in TV ads, funded by a couple of big tobacco companies. The ads were classics of the type — misdirection and confusion aimed at getting people to vote No. And it worked: Prop. 29 is going down to a narrow defeat.
In San Francisco, Prop A, with little money and not much of a campaign, never had a serious chance. But the flood of Recology money made sure it never got even 25 percent of the vote (although if you asked people, outside of the campaign, whether the garbage contract should be put out to bid, most of them would say yes).
I think Recology money had an impact on the Democratic County Central Commitee, too; Recology paid for a lot of slate cards that promoted a lot of more moderate candidates. The company also paid for progressive slate cards (the Milk Club etc.), and I haven’t counted them all, but in the end, slate cards matter in the DCCC and they may have made the difference.
The local election was so low-turnout that it’s hard to draw any serious conclusions from it. But overall, money carried the day June 5 — and that’s a scary message.
The first results just got posted, and it’s a fairly large number of votes. More than 60,000 people voted by mail, and there’s enough to draw a few conclusions.
Prop. A, the measure that would have required competitive bidding for the city’s garbage contracts, is dead, losing in the early absentees 77-23. No surprise that it’s losing; getting 23 percent of the vote with no campaign to speak of up against the full might of Recology’s money and political connections is actually pretty impressive.
Prop. B, the Coit Tower measure, is winning, 55-45, which is a good place to be at this stage. I’d say it’s time for the Yes on B camp to start celebrating.
The DCCC early returns show a lot of what we expected — the elected officials and incumbents are doing well. David Chiu is in first, beating Scott Wiener, who is beating John Avalos. For what it’s worth.
After that, it’s Bevan Dufty, David Campos, former Sup. Leslie Katz and former state Sen. Carole Migden.
Interestingly, Matt Dorsey, an appointed incumbent facing the electorate for the first time, is ahead of Sup Malia Cohen. Rafael Mandleman, Zoe Dunning, Alix Rosenthal, Petra DeJesus, and Justin Morgan finish out the top 14 on the East Side.
Those are the early absentees, and the difference between Morgan and incumbent Gabriel Haaland, now in 18th place, is just 800 votes. So it will change.
Right now, the progressives have 9 of the 14 seats on the East Side, but only 4 of the 10 on the West Side, which won’t be enough to elect a progressive chair and ensure good endorsements in the fall. But the margins are so thin and it’s so early we can’t call it yet.
On the West Side of town, Assessor Phil Ting is comfortably in the lead for the 19th Assembly District, but newcomer Michael Breyer, a conservative Democrat who spent a ton of money, is edging Republican Matthew Del Carlo by two points, setting up the possibility that Ting will have to raise money and face off against Breyer in November.
My usual limited polling sample — my precinct in Bernal Heights — suggests what everyone pretty much knew: Turnout in San Francisco will be very low. Control of the local Democratic Party, and its endorsements, will be determined by a small fraction of the eligible voters.
On the national front, since the presidential primaries are long over and California has long been irrelevant, everyone’s looking at Wisconsin, where the battle to recall Gov. Scott Walker will have national implications. Walker’s trying to survive by blaming public employees for the state’s economic woes; since he ended collective bargaining, he said today, the state budget is running a surplus and property taxes are down.
If by some chance he’s thrown out of office — and it doesn’t look good right now — labor will have one of its greatest victories in years. If he becomes the first governor in US history to survive a recall, he’ll portray it as a confirmation that the public supports his attack on unions. The right-wing types have poured millions into this race — and if they get their way, a lot of labor folks are going to be asking why President Obama (who will be in San Francisco to raise money at Clint Reilly’s office building June 6) didn’t make an appearance in Wisconsin.
Labor came in big for the president in 2008, and this one is hugely important — and the White House has been entirely missing in action. And he may have to answer for it if Walker survives and GOP governors across the country take up the call and attack public-sector unions as the start of a larger attack on organized labor.
In California, I don’t care how much money the tobacco companies spent — Prop. 29, the cigarette tax, is going to win. And I think the term-limits measure squeaks through, too. Locally, we all know that Prop. A will lose under a barrage of Recology money; I hope Prop. B survives the strange last-minute money blitz.
We may not know for days how the Democratic County Central Committee races are shaking out. If it’s close, and control of the panel hangs on a couple of tight races, the absentee votes that get counted over the next few days will make the difference.
As a reporter for the old Redwood City Tribune in 1965 or so, I got a call one day from the late Luman Drake, then an indefatigable environmental activist in Brisbane. “Bruce,” he said, “you are good at exposing scandals on the Peninsula, but you have missed the biggest scandal of them all. Garbage, garbage in the Bay off Brisbane, garbage alongside the Bay Shore going into San Francisco.”
He then outlined for me, his voice rising in anger, how the scavengers of an early era had muscled through a longtime contract to dump San Francisco’s garbage into the bay alongside the Bay Shore freeway. And, he said, they are still doing it. Why can’t you fight it? I asked naively.
“Fight it, fight it,” he replied. “The scavengers are the most powerful political force in San Francisco and there’s not a goddamn thing we can do about it.” I checked out his story, then and through the years, and he was right. Everyone driving in and out of San Francisco could watch with horror for years as the scavengers kept dumping San Francisco garbage into a big chunk of the bay. (Note the oral history from Drake and then Mayor Paul Goercke and others who fought the losing fight for years to kick out the scavengers from Brisbane.) http://legendarymarketingenius.com/oralhistorySBMW.html)
Five decades later, the scavengers are still a preeminent political power in San Francisco. The scavengers (now Recology) have operated since 1932 without competitive bidding, without regulation of its high residential and commercial rates, without a franchise fee, and without any real oversight. Finally, after all these years as king of the hill, Recology’s monopoly is being challenged by Proposition A, an initiative aimed at forcing Recology for the first time to undergo competitive bidding and thereby save city residents and businesses millions of dollars in rates and service.
Let me say up front that I salute former State Senator and retired Judge Quentin Kopp and Tony Kelly, president of the Potrero Hill Boosters and the Guardian’s candidate for District l0 election (Potrero Hill/BayView/Hunters Point). They have taken this measure on when nobody else would, without much money or resources, and up against a $l.5 million campaign by Recology and enormous, nasty political pressure. I also salute those who publicly signed on to their brochure: Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, San Francisco Tomorrow, SF Human Services Network, David Bisho,Walter Farrell, George Wooding, Irene Creps, Alexa Vuksich, the San Francisco Examiner, SF Appeal.com, and the Guardian.
I was delighted to get a Yes on A brochure at my house in West Portal and find that Kopp and Kelly et al had money enough to make a strong statement in a strong campaign mailer. Kopp and Kelly persuasively summarized the key points for A and against more galloping Recology monopoly in the brochure. Meanwhile, the Recology forces have been using gobs of money, a massive mail campaign, robot calls, and deploying the kind of political muscle their predecessors used to keep dumping garbage in the bay off Brisbane for decades. Since the Yes on A camp has trouble cutting through the cannonading and the flak, let me lay out the A arguments verbatim from its brochure.
Question in the brochure: “Why is Recology spending millions to buy this election? Recology has contributed $l,580,292.70 against Prop A. (Form 460 SF Ethics Commission.” Answer in the brochure; “So they can raise your garbage rates after the election! ‘San Francisco Prepares For Recology to Raise Garbage Rates’ (Contract is Proof Recology Plans to Hike Garbage Rates Following Election’”) Then they laid out l0 reasons to vote Yes on A.
1. “71 Bay Area cities have competitive bidding or franchise agreements for garbage services. Because San Francisco doesn’t, residential trash collection rates have increased 136% in the last 11 years, with another massive increase coming after the election! We pay more than twice as much for garbage and recycling as San Jose, a city with twice the land and about 400,000 more people.
2. “The garbage collection/recycling monopoly now grosses about $220 million per year from the city’s residents and businesses, without any regulation of commercial rates.
3. “How did we end up paying so much? In 2001 the monopoly requested a 52% rate increase, Department of Public Works staff recommended 20% and the then DPW director (now Mayor) Ed Lee granted a 44 %rate increase. That’s why the Examiner said: ‘no-bid contracts generally make for dirty public policy, and this includes…The City’s garbage collection monopoly…’
4. “Don’t believe the monopoly’s 78% recycling rate claim backed only by its puppet city department. A former Recology recycling manager has testified under oath that fraudulent reporting, excessive state reimbursements and even kickbacks to and from Recology employees are behind this bogus claim. Another ‘whistleblower’ has revealed that even sand removal from the Great Highway was included in this 78%.
5. “With a far smaller population, Oakland receives $24 million each year as a franchise fee, which supports city services and prevents other tax and fee increases. San Francisco receives zilch from the monopoly holder in franchise fees for our General Fund.
6. “Proposition A is on the ballot through citizen/ratepayer time and effort, in the face of intimidation and harassment by the monopoly’s agents and its multi-million dollar campaign against it.
7. “Proposition A is simple: it authorizes the Director of Public Works and the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analyst to prepare competitive bidding regulations for residential and commercial collection, recycling, and disposal, by modifying an outdated 1932 ordinance.
8. “Like all other competitive-bid city contracts, the winning garbage service bid will be ratified by the Board of Supervisors without any political tinkering. The winning bid will contain the best deal for city ratepayers.
9. “If the monopoly is truly the corporation portrayed in its expensive campaign to defeat Prop A, it would easily win every bid. As the Examiner stated last year, ‘…contracts won by competitive bidding are always better for the public in the long run.’
10. And then the list of endorsers ‘and tens of thousands of other ratepayers.’”
Kopp and Kelly et al are providing a major public service by challenging an arrogant monopoly of an essential public service and keeping alive the concept of competitive bidding on city contracts in San Francisco. I drink to them from a pitcher of Potrero Hill martinis. Vote early and often for Prop A. B3
Okay, okay, not everyone is ignoring this election. San Francisco Elections Director John Arnst tells us that his department has received about 55,000 mail-in ballots so far out of the nearly 217,000 they sent out, a turnout of about 25 percent. And 1,110 voters have cast their ballots in person during early voting at City Hall as of this afternoon, a level lower than the 2010 or 2008 primaries “by quite a bit,” Arnst said.
That’s not really surprising given that both major political parties have already chosen their presidential candidates, there are no other offices being seriously contested, and the rest of the ballot consists of the Democratic County Central Committee (and its Green and Republican parties counterparts) races and a pair each of ho-hum statewide and local ballot measures. The most interesting one is Proposition A, which seeks to break Recology’s waste collection monopoly in San Francisco by requiring competitive bidding.
“If the garbage issue is the most exciting issue on the ballot, you know it’s the most boring election ever,” says Tony Kelly, who is leading the campaign for Prop. A.
With the exception of a press conference that Kelly and other Prop. A supporters held last week to accuse Recology of being complicit in an alleged recycling kickback scheme by some of its employees, there’s been little to indicate Prop. A has much chance of success given that almost every endorsing group (except the Guardian) opposes the measure.
“Goliath doesn’t lose very often, and we’re being outspent 100 to one,” Kelly said, expressing hopes that the measure can at least garner 35-40 percent of the vote to send a message that Recology should work with the city to allow competitive bidding on some of its contracts.
But with turnout expected to be low, Recology isn’t taking any chances. Its political consultant, Eric Potashner, says the campaign has been assembling up to a couple hundred volunteers and its SoMa headquarters each weekend and “we’re doing the full grassroots outreach.” He expressed confidence that the measure will be defeated: “Folks have been well educated on this issue.”
Arnst estimates that this will be a historically low turnout election: “Top end right now, comparing the last three presidential primaries, I’m looking at 40 percent as the top turnout possible.”
But you know what that means, right? Your vote could be more decisive than ever, particularly for the 24 members of the DCCC, the outcome of which could move the ideological center of that body before its important endorsements in the fall Board of Supervisors races. So click here to take a look at the Guardian’s endorsements and don’t forget to vote.
Elsbern answers Impertinent Questions from B3 and James Chaffee (Scroll down)
First off, to your reference about still looking for me at Que Syrah, or one of the other great West Portal establishments, you have been saying this to me repeatedly for a long time now. Initially, it was a bit funny, a nice little inside joke (although since you post on your blog our e-mail exchanges, not so “inside”) between a couple of people who really do not see eye to eye on many issues.
However, as you continued to perpetuate this inside joke, it transitioned from being a bit funny, to a bit odd. If you’d like to meet with me, let’s schedule a time. Thus far, you have only offered Que Syrah’s happy hour time, which I have explained to you, on at least two occasions, does not work for me as it is a weeknight immediately after work – a time I reserve for my wife and son. I can meet with you during the day most week days, or later in the evening after I put my son to bed
Now, if I am wrong here, and just misreading your intentions by misunderstanding the tone in your e-mails, I apologize. I know you are a journalist and like to write, but maybe we would do better if you picked up the phone and called me rather than solely initiating communication with me by e-mail. If it is simply your intent to catch me in the act of enjoying a meal on West Portal, I plan on having breakfast there this Saturday at 8:00 am at the Village Grill with my son – come join us if you’d like, although to warn you, breakfast with a 3 year old is not necessarily that conducive to a productive policy discussion. (B3: Sorry I couldn’t make your date but let’s reschedule. I didn’t phone because I wanted your reply in writing and on the written record.)
Second, congratulations to you on the sale of the Guardian and the associated real property, assuming the recent media reports are true. I am thrilled that the economic climate in San Francisco is allowing you to make a little bit of money. As an aside, I hope you complete the real estate transaction before the November election; there is a proposed property transfer tax increase on the November ballot that could hamper your
profits. B3: As a small business, the Guardian pays high business and property taxes. We don’t get Twitter type tax breaks nor friendly PG&E/Recology monopoly concessions. And we are annoyed
that the wealthy individuals and businesses intown are shifting more and more taxes to small businesses and residents,
I hope you can work on this.
Third, on to the Chaffee letter and his points. I do agree with his point that what happened on Tuesday has happened before. In fact, on March 8, 2011, at a meeting of the full Board of Supervisors, the full Board was asked to approve the nominations of the Rules Committee for three seats on the Citizen’s Committee on Community Development. Nicole Rivera was one of the 3 nominees approved by the Rules Committee; Charles Scianmas applied and appeared before the Rules Committee, but was not put forward as one of the 3 nominees. At the full Board meeting, Supervisor John Avalos moved, with Supervisor David Campos seconding the motion, to remove Ms. Rivera and replace her with Mr. Scianmas. The full Board approved this motion to amend (Avalos, Campos, Chiu, Kim, Mar, and Mirkarimi voting aye), and then appointed Mr. Scianmas. They did all this without taking any public comment on Supervisor Avalos’s motion. This is the exact same process Supervisor Weiner used when he moved to amend the item on Tuesday.
Refresh my memory – did you write Supervisor Avalos an e-mail asking him why he did this after the March 8, 2011 Board meeting without taking public comment? Did you contact any of the other five Board members who voted for this motion without taking public comment first? Did you blog about why the Board majority took this action without taking public comment? Did the Guardian publish an article about why the Board took this action without taking public comment? Or, in the converse, did the Guardian trumpet this move by Supervisor Avalos because it liked the result?
Obviously, the point I am making is that you are criticizing a process today because you simply do not like the outcome. If the outcome
was one of which you approved, I doubt very much you would be forwarding meMr. Chaffee’s letter. And, in fact, your past practice proves my point. B3: Your coup sabotaged the sunshine ordinance and task force on behalf of the Willie Brown gang and the boys and girls in the back room. It particularly galls me and others when it is done in violation of the spirit and letter of the city’s sunshine ordinance. Your vote for the developer’s shady last minute maneuvers on the Park Merced deal in your district is a good example.
Finally, to your general concerns about replacing the Sunshine Task Force incumbents with new citizens, I believe Supervisor Weiner articulated the need for this action quite well during the Board meeting. Frankly, let’s be honest, if any other City Board, commission, or task force decided to take it upon themselves, ignore every bit of City Attorney legal advice and every known precedent under the Charter and Robert’s Rules of Order, to take official actions even when a quorum is not present, the Guardian would be critiquing, if not execrating said body and all of its members. Wait, I take that back. If LAFCO took that action, it would probably get a pass too. Sincerely, Sean P.S. Please let me know if I should get a booth for two or three this Saturday morning.
From: Bruce Brugmann <email@example.com> To: Sean Elsbernd <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 05/24/2012 10:57 AM Subject: On Guard: Some more questions on “The Return of Willie Brownism to the sunshine task force”
Dear Sup. Elsbernd, (Chaffee letter below) I am still looking for you at Que Syrah and this morning at the Manor and last week at the Village Grill I am now sending you a copy of an open letter from James Chaffee to the board (dated Tuesday, May 22, the day of the 6-5 vote) that was done with the intention in my view (and that of many others) of knocking out the knowledgeable and experienced people from the task force and in effect gutting the body. I would appreciate your comments on his points that the maneuvering and his point that the the vote “was the perfect example of a failure to follow the Sunshine Ordinance that led to the sort of problem that it was intended to forestall.” Chaffee served with me as the chair on the sunshine task force and was the chair. He is a longtime proponent of open government. I would also appreciate any comments you have on the bruce blog I sent you earlier, “The Return of Willie Brownism to the sunshine task force.”
In short, why are you and Sup. Wiener and Farrell making this attack on open government and the sunshine ordinance/task force.? Many thanks, b3
Today’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting included an item for approval of appointments to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.
Supervisor Weiner moved to amend the motion to delete Bruce Wolfe from the recommendation that was passed out of committee and replace him with David Todd. That amendment passed.
As almost everyone knows, there is no public comment on a motion that was heard at a committee. It has been accepted by the Supervisors in the past and acknowledged by the City Attorney’s Office that if the motion that was heard in committee is changed substantially so that what is being considered no longer reflects what was passed out of committee, public comment needs to be taken again. This is designed to give people time to lobby the supervisors, or point out any mistakes, and not to be subjected to surprises. As a matter of fact, it has been past practice for the Supervisors to list the appointee’s names on the agenda. This is the first time I have noticed it was not done. Is this another example of the Supervisors hiding a proposed action to give them “flexibility.”
Yet the Supervisors passed the amended motion without taking public comment.
As probably everyone but Scott Weiner knows, the Sunshine Ordinance at §67.30(a) states that: “At all times the task force shall include at least one member who shall be a member of the public who is physically handicapped and who has demonstrated interest in citizen access and participation in local government.”
Bruce Wolfe has been filling that requirement on the Task Force. Is David Todd physically handicapped? What plan do the supervisors have to assure that this requirement is fulfilled?
If there had been the required public comment, someone could have brought it up? As a matter of fact, the idea for public comment is not just to make the commenter feel better. The primary idea is that public decisions will benefit from the collective wisdom of the citizens.
This is the perfect example of a failure to follow the Sunshine Ordinance that led to the sort of problem that it was intended to forestall, namely the Supervisors taking an action without being informed of what they are doing. If Scott Weiner and David Chui and the rest of the crew did not consider the citizens the enemy and exercise judgment about whether they were complying with the spirit of open government rather than just shaving off letter of the law as closely as possible, this could have been avoided.
Of course, I don’t know for a fact that Todd David is not physically handicapped. I took a look at his application and he is self employed as an investor, obtained a B.A. from Stanford in 1993, has never attended a Task Force meeting, and left the statement of his qualifications blank. I took a look at the video of the May 17, Rules Committee meeting and he had no obvious physical handicap. It is easy to see why Scott Weiner likes him; he said it would be a long road before he would go against the City Attorney’s office, and when it came to constitutional law he would place the City Attorney’s opinion above his own because the City Attorney is an “expert.”
Wow. Every single slate card I’ve seen so far for this election has been paid for at least in part by Recology, which is fighting a measure that would require competitive bidding on its garbage contract.
The Richmond Democratic Club. The Teacher’s Union. The SF Women’s Political Committee. The SF Democratic Party. The Milk Club. The Alice B. Toklas Club. I’m sure there are a few more out there. And every one has a big “No on A” ad on the back.
The good news is that a lot of these mailers list good candidates for the County Central Commitee, and getting their message out to more people helps. And this is nothing new — everyone looks to the people with money to fund slate cards, and Recology’s spending a lot of money this spring. And I’m confident that every one of these groups took a No on A position before they asked for slate-card money.
Still: You look at the pile and it looks like Recology owns San Francisco politics.