The state of San Francisco these days is such that when an elected official mentions “the shit hitting the fan,” you need to slow them down and ask for specifics: “What shit? And what fan?”
This city’s struggles right now — between a pandemic of corruption investigations, a raft of pandemic-induced fiscal nightmares, and an out-and-out pandemic — resemble those too-busy tableaus in Marvel action movies in which the point of view zooms around a crowded battlefield, fixating for a fleeting moment on separate areas of struggle while the orchestral score swells.
Let’s focus, for a moment, on the garbage bins. You can play this in the background if you like.
Back in October, we noted that refuse collection giant Recology was the source of the supermajority of dollars in slush funds controlled by disgraced ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru — and the garbage rates you and I pay ballooned more than 20 percent while that money was being funneled into the slush funds.
In November, an ousted Recology executive was federally charged in an alleged bribery scheme in which Nuru and Recology employees purportedly conspired to jack up municipal collection rates.
And, in December, a proposed $62.5 million Recology contract to collect the city’s municipal waste came before the Board of Supervisors.
So, that’s bad timing. You’re supposed to pull the ripcord on the parachute before you hit the ground. Because it’s clear that Recology and the city were busy negotiating this contract extension well after Nuru was arrested and charged, and well after responsible elements at Recology — and, let’s be honest, the city of San Francisco — should’ve known what was coming down.
Perhaps someone should’ve mentioned this before a contract was up for approval before the full Board of Supervisors. If you see something, say something, as the expression goes.
This is what Supervisor Aaron Peskin was getting at when he questioned city officials about how this contract “got so far.” He did not receive an adequate answer.
And, as such, this board meeting began to somewhat resemble the conclusion of a Scooby-Doo caper: Recology would’ve gotten away with it, too — if it weren’t for those meddling Feds!
This contract was, in the end, relegated back to a Board committee. Peskin tells me that Recology has offered to keep collecting the city’s municipal waste at its prior rate until a new contract is approved — which he believes “means the new contract was too rich.”
These, incidentally, are the rates the city pays Recology to pick up its own municipal waste. Regarding the rates you or your landlord pay for Recology to pick up your waste, city apparatchiks have insisted to our elected officials that these fees — the ones a series of meticulously detailed federal charges allege were augmented due to a campaign of bribery and chicanery — were arrived at fairly.
Well, perhaps. Perhaps Nuru took the money to do something he’d do anyway, and push through something the city was inclined to do anyway. “Hustling some money” and “ripping off someone who was not very smart” is, after all, the Willie Brown-approved behavior for elected officials that he expounded upon in his column in our city’s newspaper of record.
The problem here is that Brown’s system could apply to not just Nuru, but the city writ large. And the one being ripped off in that scenario isn’t Recology — it’s us.
Because the city was inclined to approve the rate hike. And that’s because when Recology pocketed more money from San Francisco’s ratepayers, Recology paid more money to San Francisco’s government.
When those rates were hiked in 2017, Recology directed $11.5 million to the Department of the Environment and $8.5 million to Public Works itself — the department that, as noted earlier, has a great deal of influence on tabulating and approving Recology’s rates.
“Public Works is both Recology’s regulator — and an interested party,” Peskin says. “That behavior must be reformed. The regulator has to become independent.”
The origins of this untenable situation harken to this city’s political Pleistocene. In 1932, our voters opted to allow only Recology’s ancestral companies to haul waste within city limits — that’s right, a voter-approved monopoly.
Recology has grown into a wealthy company with no shortage of political allies of all political stripes. When Quentin Kopp in 2012 put a measure on the ballot that would’ve broken this monopoly and subjected Recology to its first rounds of competitive bidding since the Hoover Administration, it was denounced by both the city’s Democratic and Republican parties and spurned by 77 percent of the voters.
Well, that was then and this is now. But putting a similar measure on the ballot would have to come later. Much later: Barring some manner of a special election, the soonest such a vote could come is in 2022.
Peskin, however, wants to move sooner than that. He recently pored through the ‘32 ordinance binding this city to Recology. And he sees possibilities.
When Peskin begins to dig into legislation, it feels a bit like Steve Young busting into the secondary and swerving around the field. In other words, it’s intriguing and fun — but, likely, less fun for the Deputy City Attorneys who have to keep track of what we can do and what we can’t. And, quite possibly, much less fun for Recology.
Peskin has interesting ideas about what we can do. Perusing the ’32 ordinance, he notes that, federal charges or not, only Recology can be paid to haul away refuse. But there’s nothing in there about people hauling it away for free. Considering paper products are exempted from this ordinance, he theorizes that San Francisco could enter into future contracts in which a collector or collectors pick up materials for free, and then do with it what they see fit.
“There would appear to be many markets out there wherein a refuse collector can pick stuff up and make money off it,” Peskin says, “without charging.”
Can we do that? Maybe. Should we do that? Maybe. Maybe not. Is this potential leverage to get a better deal from Recology?
Yes. Yes it is.
San Francisco’s garbage rates are, actually, middle-of-the-pack in the Bay Area. Even without competitive bidding.
But we could do better. There’s no reason not to. The alternative is to acquiesce to contracts that are too rich.
And that’s not very smart.