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Frank Gruber

Talking Trash

By Frank Gruber

I attended the Santa Monica City Council meeting last Tuesday expecting to get out of it another column on the land use and circulation element update (LUCE), inasmuch as an evaluation of the Planning Department's recent outreach on transportation and the industrial lands was on the council's agenda.

Instead I heard a lot of trash talk. The council spent several hours discussing the collection and disposal of trash, so that by around ten o'clock Mayor Richard Bloom suggested postponement of the LUCE matter until Nov. 13, and his colleagues agreed.

The postponement's not a bad thing in and on its own, because it gives the Planning Commission a shot at discussing the issues before the council -- which seems like the natural order of things -- and in any case there were only a handful of people at the council meeting to discuss LUCE.

It's a mystery to me that while recent LUCE workshops have regularly attracted more than 100 participants, few people will show up at a City Council meeting where actual decisions are made. It probably has something to with the fact that at a workshop (a) you don't have to sit around for hours waiting to speak for two or three minutes, and (b) you get to draw on big maps.

In any case, the trash issue did deserve a lot of discussion, and while I was there I learned a lot about trash. More than I wanted to know, in fact, but unfortunately not enough to feel confident in telling the City what to do about it.

Not that I would ever aspire to advise the City Council about the fine points and economics of trash disposal. It's one of those two-handed technical issues -- "on the one hand or on the other" -- that resist a columnist's stock in trade: i.e., the moral clarity of his ideology.

I mean I have a lot of opinions about recycling my own trash, but collection of trash from residential neighborhoods was not on the table last week. The issues were whether to have all commercial waste, which currently is collected by the City's Solid Waste Management Division (SWMD) and 40 private companies, collected by one entity (either the SWMD or a private company), and how best to build and operate a new transfer facility where waste can be sorted and, hopefully, recycled.

Council Member Bobby Shriver also didn't think he was getting sufficient information on which to base a decision. He said that he was too confused by the presentation from staff to have an opinion. Part of the problem so far as I could tell was that certain questions had arisen the very day of the meeting, including questions about costs, and staff and the council had to deal with new information that had just been presented.

Inherently, though, the problem is that in the case of trash, the staff is conflicted. One of the big players in the business is the City's own SWMD, which currently collects our residential trash and which would like to collect the city's commercial trash as well.

It's natural for people to wonder if even outside evaluators, like those on the "Evaluation Committee" the City recruited to study the City's trash situation, can be objective when evaluating a city division against outside competition, and you know that a contract between the City and its own division is not going to be enforceable in the same manner that one between the City and a private party is.

One the other hand (see what I mean?), the City has a lot more control over its own division than it does over a third party no matter what the contract.

My initial impulse was to support the City's Solid Waste Division in whatever they want to do. This wasn't because I believe in socialized trash collection, but because of my experiences everyday in the alley behind my office on Fourth Street. This alley is heavily used by trash trucks and there are several locations for dumpsters, both city owned and private.

Briefly put, the city-owned dumpsters under the parking structures are clean and neat, and the privately owned dumpsters are a mess. Meanwhile, the alley gets blocked at all hours because of the multiple competing private trash trucks that lumber through. It's a situation that cries out for the jackboot of Stalinism.

But I was also intrigued by the testimony of the private haulers. Southern California Disposal (SCD), a local company with a facility near the City Yards, has a good labor and environmental record, and they have some interesting ideas about collaborating with the SWMD. The most interesting have to do with an acre or so of land the SCD owns near Bergamot Station. SCD is proposing swapping that land to the City for land near the City Yards, which would enable the building of a joint transfer facility.

Another company, Athens Services, is proposing to build an 82,000 square foot enclosed processing center at the City Yards (four times the size of the facility SWMD proposes to build) that would enable much more recycling; Athens says it will guarantee an 80% recycling rate.

The City Council didn't make any final decisions last week. The council members couldn't agree on what direction to take on the issue of commercial collections, and the staff will return in the near future with more information. With regard to the transfer facility, the council directed staff to investigate opportunities for public-private partnerships.


Meeting notice: The Planning Commission will consider the LUCE recommendations at its meeting Wednesday evening. Read the staff report

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