The Garbage Wars: A New Front (August 19, 1998)

Right after the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the Republic under the Sky-God for which it stands, County Administrator Mike Scannell introduced Roger Wong, the new head of the county’s personnel department, who is now called Human Resources Director. Wong said he was “excited” to be in Mendocino County — he comes from Contra Costa County, so he may have been telling the truth — and exchanged a few pleasantries with the board.

After Wong made his exit, Scannell introduced a discussion of a possible study of the Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority (MSWMA), and then things got weird and interesting for those who belong to the county’s solid waste subculture. MSWMA is the joint powers authority by the cities and county government formed in 1990 to deal with AB939 and state mandates to reduce the volume of garbage going into county landfills. 

The MSWMA study was on the agenda last week but was postponed until yesterday so that First District Supervisor Michael Delbar, absent last week, could take part in the discussion. As it turned out, Delbar did more than take part; he claimed to represent an MSWMA committee bearing a request to the county to do a study of MSWMA’s functions. Should they be folded into the county’s Solid Waste Division? Could the county do what MSWMA now does cheaper? Does the county want to get into the garbage business more than it already is?

Jim Murphy brought a letter from the Fort Bragg City Council supporting such a study, as did Gordon Logan from Willits, even though they didn’t seem to have any complaints about MSWMA or the deal they’re getting under the JPA. Former supervisor Frank McMichael appeared on behalf of the right-wing Mendocino County Employers Council in support of the study, which is reason enough for sensible people to consider opposing it.

Fourth District Supervisor Patti Campbell said that now that the transfer station issue is on the way to being solved, it’s time to concentrate on the AB939 mandate. Maybe the board should wait until next March when they begin to look at the next budget, a better time to look at new directions in county garbage policy. She noted that no one seems to be complaining about the services MSWMA is delivering.

Delbar conceded that MSWMA and the JPA have done a good job, but is this arrangement the best deal for county ratepayers? The county should do a study to find out. The way he saw it, either MSWMA is the best way to go or some other option is better. He claimed only to want enough information to make an informed decision.

Delbar’s only ally on the issue — they both want to “study” MSWMA to death — Third District Supervisor John Pinches, thought that now that the county administrator’s office has two new people it’s a good time to do the study, even though he too praised MSWMA’s past performance. Pinches reminded the board that the closure of the Laytonville landfill was on this week’s consent calendar, an indication of how much things have changed for the better in the county since 1990. Why, he wondered, should the county have two entities — the Solid Waste Division and MSWMA — dealing with solid waste? Why not combine everything in one agency?

Second District Supervisor Richard Shoemaker said that MSWMA has been so successful it’s working itself out of a job. He mentioned some of MSWMA’s past successes, like the freon removal program and dealing with illegal dumps in rural areas. More importantly, Shoemaker presented some numbers that undermined hopes of significant savings in doing away with MSWMA: Shoemaker said that, in spite of what people read in a certain publication (a reference to the AVA), MSWMA’s manager Mike Sweeney makes only $50,000, including benefits, and his two staffers make around $30,000 for a total payroll in the $111,000 to $135,000 range. Shoemaker claimed that if MSWMA’s functions are absorbed by Solid Waste, it would cost the county 20% more in benefits for a comparable staff. And the cities? Fort Bragg has already looked at performing MSWMA’s functions itself and it realized it couldn’t afford to do them at all without MSWMA. Finally, Shoemaker said that the move to “study” MSWMA seemed to be political payback, not a serious attempt at improving county policy.

Supervisor Campbell’s relationship with Supervisor Delbar is evidently so bad she refused to take his word for his claim that he was simply a messenger from MSWMA requesting that the county do a study. Campbell missed the last MSWMA meeting, and she wanted to check the minutes of that meeting before accepting Delbar’s version of events. The board adjourned for 10 minutes so that she could do so. When the board reconvened, Campbell had verified that Delbar was representing a JPA/MSWMA committee, but not necessarily the MSWMA board itself.

County Administrator observed that the issue of unifying the county’s garbage system is both a “substantive and a fractious” issue, and that it was not a “slam-dunk.” He said that if the county was being asked to do a study the cities would have to be on board.

Supervisor Campbell suggested that the study idea needed to have better focus as to its scope, and Scannell agreed. Campbell proposed that the supervisors bounce the study idea back to MSWMA so that the concept’s scope could be better defined.

Scannell said that everyone wanted to provide the best services for the best price. Hence, the best way to proceed would be to issue a request for proposal to all interested parties. Shoemaker made a motion to send the study idea back to MSWMA for clarification; the motion passed 3-2, with Delbar and Pinches dissenting.

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