Recalls and Recology
By Quentin Kopp
Then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in June 1901 to Harvard and Yale undergraduates at his palatial Oyster Bay, Long Island home: “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.” That encompasses treatment of constituents who paid the taxes which produced schools, streets, police protection, fire safety, community centers, buses and trolley cars.
As readers know, I’ve advocated for two decades the repeal of the monopoly bestowed unwittingly in a different era by San Francisco voters upon garbage collection in 1932. That ultimately led to a monopoly, now dubbed Recology, Inc.
Among other City Hall corruption prosecutions by the U.S. Attorney’s office are two criminal cases against Recology executives and the one-time director of Public Works, who has now admitted criminality in hopes of avoiding lengthy imprisonment.
More than a decade ago, an initiative to abolish the 1932 monopoly for garbage collection qualified for the 2011 municipal election. At that time, costs to residential and commercial ratepayers exceeded $220 million annually. Commercial rates were unregulated by a Rate Board composed of the chief administrative officer, controller and manager of utilities. After the chief initiative campaign financier, a Port of San Francisco tenant, was threatened by Port staff with loss of his lease, and Supervisors David Campos and Aaron Peskin quit the good government effort, initiative proponents were overwhelmed by the well-financed Recology opposition campaign. The initiative failed. Recology continued to fleece ratepayers with increased rates.
Following years of disinterest, City Hall was embarrassed into acting, although not quickly. The corruption cases are now three years old. Instead of presenting voters in 2020 or 2021 with a ballot measure repealing the 1932 monopoly ordinance, City Hall blithely ignored the public last year. In March 2021, after City Controller Ben Rosenfield, the unsung ratepayer hero, audited Recology and informed the city attorney of Recology’s lies to the Rate Board by inflating costs and ignoring anticipated revenues in order to obtain a 14.4% rate increase in 2017, a 5% increase in 2020 and another 1% in 2021 (without its disregard of revenue, the rate increase would have been 7% in 2017), Recology surrendered, reimbursing residents some $94.5 million.
In 2020, San Franciscans were paying $59.70 per garbage bin each month to the monopoly while San Mateo ratepayers, under competitive bidding, paid $24.93 per month, Colma ratepayers paid $25.67 per month and Daly City ratepayers were charged $31.31 monthly. Not a single city on the Peninsula with competitive bidding paid as much as San Franciscans; almost all paid about half, except wealthy Atherton and Hillsborough residents who paid $50 monthly.
Into the breach stepped Supervisor Aaron Peskin and co-authors Board President Shamann Walton, Myrna Melgar, Rafael Mandelman, Connie Chan and Hillary Ronen with a ballot measure ordinance for June 7, 2022, which requires competitive bidding after Nov. 1, 2022 and a “ratepayer representative” to replace the controller on the three-member Refuse Rate Board.
A second version, sponsored by the mayor and all supervisors, including Peskin, which was introduced last month would only require competitive bidding for all garbage collection permits, including commercial ratepayers, if enacted by the Board and mayor. After commencing a sham ballot measure initiative, Recology withdrew its artifice on Jan. 20, whether from futility or, horrors, some corruptive ingredient like a “backroom” deal.
On Nov. 16, 2021, the impeccable city controller began another investigation of Recology’s annual rate report for the year ending June 30, 2021. That includes Recology’s professed expenses and revenue and audited financial reports for fiscal years 2016-2020. Perhaps ratepayers will receive another rebate this year, thanks to Rosenfield.
Besides the recall of Board of Education members Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga on Feb. 15, there is also a contested election with four candidates to replace City Attorney David Chiu in the California Assembly. The District includes Twin Peaks and some westside neighborhoods. Candidates include Supervisor Matt Haney, aforementioned former supervisor Campos, scientist Bilal Mahmood and Thea Selby, a City College and California High Speed Rail Authority member who claimed to The Chronicle “… varied life experiences made her the strongest candidate in the race.” She’s dangerous.
Selby wants to change Prop. 13 regarding property taxation after California voters rejected such ballot measure in 2020. She doesn’t tell voters that the high-speed rail project violates promises to voters in 2008 because the alleged “segment” from Coachella to Wasco (misnomer now NOT Merced to Bakersfield) isn’t electrified and duplicates Amtrak service in the Central Valley. Legislators have refused to release $4.2 billion remaining in the $9 billion general obligation bond issue approved by voters in 2008. She claims she’ll “educate” Assembly members on the subject and is endorsed by Oakland’s mayor, which ought to influence thousands of voters on Feb. 15! I recommend Mahmood.
U.C. Berkeley Professor of Public Policy David Kirp last month commented in the morning rag about the school board recall election, which will cost taxpayers $3.25 million. He opposes Mayor London Breed’s plan to empower City Hall to cancel taxpayer subsidies to the School District, because such a plan punishes pupils by withholding millions for students, and that the solution is to allow the mayor to appoint school board members, as in many other big cities. Professor Kirp notes such procedure “… makes the mayor accountable for what happens in the schools.”
Shamefacedly, I admit responsibility with the late one-time Supervisor John J. Barbagelata for effectuating election of school board members by a November 1971 initiative. They were appointed by the mayor under the 1932 Charter. We did so to stop the busing of public-school pupils from their homes in contradistinction to nearby neighborhood schools. It hasn’t worked and busing of grade school pupils continues. Political experts advise me those elections are controlled by the teachers’ union and Democratic Central Committee. Few San Francisco voters are interested. Recall leaders should next persuade the mayor to submit a charter amendment to restore the appointment power to future mayors and her.
In case you’re despondent or distorted by national, state or local civic affairs, remember President James Madison’s August 1820 letter to a friend: “Equal laws promoting equal rights … the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country.”
Quentin Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor, state senator, member of the SF Ethics Commission and retired judge. Find an archive of Quentin L. Kopp’s columns at RichmondSunsetNews.com.