AS AN INVESTIGATIVE reporter who covered the administration of Mayor Willie Brown in San Francisco for eight years, I thought nothing could surprise me by the way of official cupidity and stupidity. Until, that is, I attended last week's meeting of the Petaluma City Council.
The first item on the agenda was to accept the resignation of Stephanie McAllister from the planning commission. McAllister had resigned in despair because of interference in city planning by developers with clout at the city council, which repeatedly overturned rulings made by the planning commission. McAllister's resignation caused a round of public criticism of the city council, resulting in a minor reform. Monday night, McAllister, proverbial hat in hand, asked to take back her resignation letter. Five of seven council members voted to give her the boot. One council member said he had someone to replace her, presumably a person less critical of the council majority and the developers who love them.
After McAllister's torpedoing, the stage was set for scuttling the garbage-hauling contract with Green Waste Recovery. Several council members were maneuvering to dump Green Waste in favor of North Bay Corporation, which had previously been eliminated from competition. This was to be the third time in less than a year that the council abruptly changed its collective mind after selecting a garbage contractor.
The majority voting bloc on the council consists of Mike Healy ("the Lawyer"), Mike O'Brien ("the Security Guard"), Mike Harris ("the Republican"), Karen Nau ("the Sunday School Teacher") and Keith Canevaro ("the Soldier"). In the minority bloc are Pamela Torliatt ("the Environmentalist Real Estate Agent") and David Glass ("the Retired Baseball Announcer").
The current franchise to collect residential and commercial garbage expires on New Year's Eve. The council began soliciting for a new hauler in 2002. Four companies bid on the contract, which is worth as much as $100 million over 10 years. The council selected NorCal Waste Systems in January. The city manager and an independent waste consultant hammered out the contract details. Suddenly, paid signature gatherers appeared on the street, collecting substantial support for a referendum to override the council and kill the NorCal contract. Spooked by the specter of a voter revolt, the council deselected NorCal and hired Empire Waste Management.
But the Empire deal never got off the ground due to union problems. On Aug. 22, the council selected bidder number three, Green Waste Recovery. By all accounts, Green Waste satisfied the city's need for increased recycling, lower costs, new equipment and a unionized workforce. Right before Labor Day, North Bay owner Jimmy Ratto sent a letter to the council saying he could do the job $20 million cheaper than Green Waste. Troops of petition floggers parachuted into Petaluma collecting signatures for another referendum, this time to kill the Green Waste contract. The petition drive was paid for by North Bay Corporation lobbyist Herb Williams, the Sonoma County political broker who worked hard to elect the existing council majority.
Based on the North Bay letter, the Lawyer and the Sunday School Teacher moved an agenda item to throw the contract to North Bay. The waste consultant told the council he was incredulous that it would entertain such a motion on the basis of a two-page letter full of inaccurate financial data that promised the impossible. The city attorney told the council that the proposed referendum probably was not legal and would not threaten the Green Waste contract. Incensed members of the public testified that North Bay's referendum petition is full of lies and is nothing but an attempt to blackmail the council. The word "corruption" was heard at the microphone.
The Lawyer, the Sunday School Teacher and the Republican said that their "duty to the taxpayers" required them to support North Bay. The Security Guard recused himself from voting because North Bay is his client. The Retired Baseball Announcer and the Environmentalist Real Estate Agent were scornful of their fellow council members' fiscal posturing, saying that there was no reasonable basis for reopening the garbage contract a fourth time.
It all came down to the Soldier. Tension mounted. He said he would vote to keep the Green Waste contract. The Soldier's colleagues on the majority bloc looked as if he had slapped their behinds with a hot poker. Red-faced, the Lawyer held up a piece of paper. This garbage-contract resolution has been kept secret from the public! he exclaimed. Other members pointed out to him that copies of the resolution had been handed out at the door, and that the piece of paper in his hand was simply an attorney-client privileged memo from the city attorney. The defeated members of the majority bloc slunk away from the dais.
No thanks to them or Herb Williams, Petaluma has a new garbage contract. Think twice about signing any referendum petitions to trash it, foolable 'lumans.
From the September 21-27, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.