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Hundreds Attend Berkeley Council Workshop on Controversial Recycling Proposal

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday March 08, 2011 - 10:49:00 PM
After Fire and Police Department employees closed the doors to the crowded
            Council Chambers, scores of late arriving audience members packed the downstairs
            hall, watching a TV monitor showing the Council workshop.
Steven Finacom
After Fire and Police Department employees closed the doors to the crowded Council Chambers, scores of late arriving audience members packed the downstairs hall, watching a TV monitor showing the Council workshop.
The Ecology Center logo would disappear from curbside containers and recycling
            trucks if the City switches recycling operations to City staff.
Steven Finacom
The Ecology Center logo would disappear from curbside containers and recycling trucks if the City switches recycling operations to City staff.

Presentation of a report to the Berkeley City Council on city recycling services sparked a vigorous protest and turnout of hundreds at a special 5:30 pm workshop yesterday.

The core issue was whether, as the consultants recommended, the City of Berkeley should shift curbside pick-up recycling services from the non-profit Ecology Center to an expanded City Solid Waste Division. 

Contingents of union workers—both from the City’s sanitation services, and from the Ecology Center’s curbside recycling program—occupied opposite corners of the Council chambers while an overflow crowd packed the chambers and spilled into the downstairs hallway.  

Scores watched the proceedings on television monitors in the halls, many holding green “Save Ecology Center Recycling” signs. 

From the tenor of audience reaction and individual comments to the Council, the edge was clearly with the Ecology Center, as speaker after speaker blasted the consultant report as flawed and incomplete, and praised the Berkeley non-profit for its services, including the recycling program. 

The Ecology Center currently holds a contract to operate the City of Berkeley’s curbside recycling program for metals, glass, paper, and similar items. The Center’s white trucks patrol Berkeley streets emptying the new baby blue and brown rolling bins on the same days City sanitation workers are picking up green waste and general garbage from other containers. 

The study, “Sloan Vazquez Final Report on Assessment of the City’s Solid Waste Management Division” was summarized for the Council by Andrew Clough, the Acting Director of Public Works, and Joe Sloan, from the consulting group. 

The purpose of the study was to “review the operations” said Clough. It “was not tasked to develop or propose a new and revised rate structure at this point” for refuse and recycling services, although rates are at issue in debates over funding for recycling and solid waste programs.  

“Complete a comprehensive study” was the scope of work, said Joe Sloan, speaking for the consultant team. “We set out to look at everything the Solid Waste Division has purview over.”  

“We have not recommended terminating Berkeley’s recycling program”, he emphasized. “We haven’t recommended privatizing it.” “We have not recommended single source recycling.” 

“Our task was to say is there a way for the City to do this for less money.” “We were not in any way, at any time, directed to conclusions or outcomes by City staff, Sloan added. 

He quickly summarized key issues. The full report is available online (see below). Residential recycling in Berkeley collects about 25-30 tons a day with “semi-automated side-loading trucks” with two staff per truck, operated by the Ecology Center, Sloan said. 

“Our recommendation is that this service be integrated into the Solid Waste Division”, and that the City operate mostly “one person trucks,” not trucks staffed by two workers. 

“We recognize the entire City cannot be serviced with automated trucks”, he said. “We recognize there are some areas in Berkeley that need to have a two person truck.”  

But having a core of six to eight one-operator, trucks “will be faster and safer.” “Automated trucks are the system of choice for high density residential area.” 

Sloan said a single solid waste worker costs the City an average of $113,000 a year in salary, benefits, and related personnel costs. The report recommendations, he said, would reduce labor costs about $1.2 million each year. The City “would save a little over one million annually” by converting to one person trucks “wherever possible.” 

He then discussed franchise fees—which private operators pay to the City for permission to collect some waste, particularly from commercial and institutional clients—and other aspects of the report, concluding “if you undertake all of the recommendations we’re showing the City would be able to have an annual savings” of $5,261,000. The City would need to invest $7.1 million initially to achieve those savings, including costs of buying the existing trucks from the Ecology Center. 

A short presentation from Nashua Kalil, Susan Wengraf’s appointee on Berkeley’s Zero Waste Commission, followed Sloan.  

She conveyed Commission concern about the Sloan Vazquez report, along with a unanimous resolution from the Commission. 

“This report we see as a draft” she said. “There are many items that are not included.” “Replacing all the Ecology Center does for us is not illuminated in this report sufficiently for our purposes.” 

“We have for many years called for a strategic plan” on handling solid waste and meeting the City’s zero waste by 2020 goal, she emphasized. “What you have in front of you are recommendations but they are not a plan.” In addition to reforms in the Solid Waste Division, Berkeley “needs a rate policy that is sustainable.” 

The Commission questioned the fact that the consultant study “did not include interviews with a number of critical people” and “much of the data you have is already changed” because the study was done just as the Ecology Center was rolling out the new system of divided carts for recyclable materials. 

“If you don’t have all the numbers…you will not have what you need to make the decision”, Kalil said. “We perceive this report as a draft.” “We do believe it needs more cost benefit analysis and we also believe the process was slightly lacking.” 

“We are extremely disappointed to have to be here tonight in this way”, Kalil concluded. “We need to take the time to do this completely and thoroughly.” 

“I am sad to tell you that the former Public Works director [Claudette Ford] did not necessarily find the Commission helpful”, although it contains many experts offering their volunteer services to the City. “We’re asking you to utilize us properly.” 

The next set of speakers represented various stakeholders affected by the report, starting with Ecology Center staff. They raised a number of questions about the accuracy of numbers in the Sloan Vazquez report, noting differences between their numbers and the report numbers on the number of tons recycled annually and other statistical data. 

One speaker noted that the report suggests that cost savings would be achieved by replacing Ecology Center workers who cost, in salary and benefits, about ½ of the $113,000 on average the City spends on its sanitation workers in salary and benefits. 

“If we’re seeking lower costs, we don’t understand the recommendations,” he concluded. 

“What we’re really talking about are people, jobs, and their families”, Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Ecology Center, told the Council. 

Ending the Ecology Center contract would “cost 35 union jobs” he said. “We’re exceptionally surprised to find ourselves on the chopping block.” 

Bourque said the study “dramatically underestimates the cost of a City run operation”, including the number of employees and trucks the City would actually need to provide adequate service, and the 26% that is “City management overhead”. 

“The Ecology Center now takes all financial risks”, he emphasized. “The Ecology Center provides excellent customer service. For 40 years the Ecology Center has run an excellent program.” 

“It would be a tremendous loss to civic life and leadership to lose this program.” “The rate payers want the Ecology Center to continue to run the program” he concluded to applause from much of the audience. 

The main voice of support for the report came from a contingent of City staff affiliated with the SEIU Union, who praised the report and its recommendation that the City take over providing all recycling services, a move which could swell the number of SEIU-affiliated union workers on the City’s payroll. 

Ricky Jackson, shop steward for SEIU Local 1020, told the Council “we had our own evaluator go out and create a proposal” for reform of the Solid Waste program. “Within our proposal we had some of the same ideas as the Vazquez report.” 

He noted City staff already do green waste and food waste recycling, and said the Council should cancel franchise agreements with private operators who provide services to some local businesses, and pick up those waste disposal services. 

“Although we find some of the information incomplete, we agree with the foundation of the report,” he concluded. 

A different union perspective came from Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) representatives of the unionized Ecology Center workers who would lose their jobs if the contract were cancelled. 

“We are sort of new to this process,” Bruce Valde said. “During the beginning of this process we were never contacted in any way, shape, or form.” 

“We would prefer to be stakeholders, not gate crashers.” 

“We are not in agreement with most of the conclusions of the report”, he said. Another IWW representative added, to applause and laughter, “It wasn’t done slow, and it wasn’t done fast…it was done ‘half-fast’.” 

Stakeholder and other public comment continued for some time (summarized below). 

At the end of the workshop—all nine Council members made brief remarks, most of them raising some degree of concern about the report. 

A primary feature of Council skepticism was the recommendation that Berkeley try to save money by largely switching from curbside recycling trucks staffed by two workers to semi-automated trucks with only one employee apiece.  

Councilmember Kriss Worthington was most critical of the consultant report, saying, “The [public] testimony this evening is very compelling and impressive.” He emphasized that while “the single biggest money saver in all the recommendations has to do with the one person truck”, “there are operational questions.” 

“In the cities that have that [one staff trucks] they have to go down both sides of the street”, rather than bringing recycling bins from both sides at once, as they do with two staff. 

“It’s unclear what the greenhouse gas impact is, and that it’s saving us money,” Worthington concluded. 

“My district would require two people on the truck”, said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents most of the northeast Berkeley Hills where steep and winding streets predominate. “Most of the streets are narrow, many do not have sidewalks.” She said she had watched a recycling truck this week make its way in and out of a cul de sac; “you can’t do that with just one man on a truck.” 

“I may be the only one on this body who has ever been a sanitation worker” said Councilmember Max Anderson, noting he had worked at that occupation for four years in Philadelphia. “I kind of look a little askance at one-person trucks”, he said. He worried that a single worker per vehicle could create safety risks, if that individual was injured while processing pick-ups. 

“There is a lot of information that needs to be sorted out,” said Wengraf. She wondered “why this 3.7 million dollar contract is not bid competitively?” picking up on one of the main points of the SEIU speakers. “I would like an answer to that.” 

“Maybe we have to ask for competitive bids from both sides”, said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak.  

Wengraf also took a swipe at city staff, saying, “We have to change the culture in the (Public Works) department about the Zero Waste Commission”. She praised the expertise and commitment of Commission volunteers. 

“We’ve got a complex jumble of things in front of us”, said Councilmember Max Anderson. “There’s going to be much more to be said about this.” 

He noted the Council had received “competing data” and said he wanted a process with “all the stakeholders at the table”, but warned, “Whatever solution we arrive at is not going to be winner take all.” 

Councilmembers Wozniak and Laurie Capitelli sounded the most supportive of the consultant report. “I think the report was a success”, said the former, noting that it had stimulated several parties, including the Ecology Center and unions to come forward with proposals for cutting costs. “You may quibble about the details, but it was a success.” 

He also said that city workers currently do more recycling than the Ecology Center, since the city handles green debris pick-up. 

However, he added, “it’s important we get the numbers that we can agree on.” 

“Our main job is to balance the budget and that’s what we have to do all the time”, said Councilmember Linda Maio. The city’s goal is zero waste, she said. “Our goal isn’t to have anyone laid off from their job.” 

“I have to say I heard a lot of interesting approaches tonight.” 

“I applaud the community” for coming and testifying, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said. He was one of the councilmembers who thanked the SEIU union for recommendations.  

But “I am troubled by the lack of consultation with the stakeholders in developing this report”, he added. “Not connecting here really put us at a disadvantage.” 

Several councilmembers emphasized a point made by public speakers, that some of the numbers and data in the study are incomplete, outdated, or otherwise suspect. 

“Mr. Sloan and his staff did a job with the info available”, countered City Manager Phil Kamlarz who nonetheless added, “We’ll reconcile these numbers.” 

“We have to figure out what the costs are,” he emphasized, and “what are the best ways to assign those costs to the various rate payers.” 

“We need to reconcile the numbers, no doubt about that,” said Mayor Tom Bates. He emphasized that the Council would discuss the issue again on March 22, then would have a long hiatus when information could be researched and analyzed before further discussion in May. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” 

Kamlarz cautioned that the March 22 discussion would deal with the whole budget, not just the recycling contact and solid waste issues. 

Bates said, “I do think the report has opened up a whole panoply of problems and opportunities.” “It’s going to help us drill deep down.” 

“We’re much better off. We have time”, said Bates. “I have great confidence in the City manager, I have great confidence in the staff . . . In May we’ll get some solid proposals,” he concluded. 

Capitelli suggested that a Council subcommittee might look at the issues before May. Kamlarz said, “the idea of a subcommittee is not a bad idea.” “There are not easy solutions.” 

Capitelli added that he thought the City “should take an entrepreneurial attitude towards this”, and it was strange that “we had a business plan that if we actually achieve zero waste, it would bankrupt us.” 

“Thanks for coming, stay tuned”, Bates told the audience as the workshop ended. The Council took no formal action. 

During their comments some councilmembers tried to soothe over the impression of opposing union groups. “I don’t like, either, pitting one set of workers against each other”, said Anderson. “I really don’t want to sit here pitting one group of workers against each other”, Capitelli echoed. 

However, the two union contingents—IWW and SEIU—applauded different speakers and approaches. Several times during the evening the City workers broke into raucous chants of “SEIU! SEIU! SEIU!” following speakers they favored, prompting Bates at one point to remark, “We know you’re here.” 

SEIU member Dan Walker initially sounded a conciliatory note during his public comments, saying “We would like to be in partnership with everyone in the room, we’re not here to put anyone out of work.” But then he added that “someone has been bamboozled” if the Ecology Center was receiving $3.7 million a year for the contract but saying that costs could be reduced. 

A more strident tone came from SEIU city worker Andrea Lewis who said “no one has mentioned the Ecology Center [contract] as it stands right now is a 3.7 million item—that’s not peanuts.” “This contract has got to go to bid!”, she proclaimed, asking “Why is this contract so different?” 

“Had we [the City] done this [put the contract out to bid] we probably wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now”, she concluded. The SEIU worker contingent cheered. 

Observing the audience from the downstairs hall where many Ecology Center supporters had congregated, I was struck by the stony silence of the watchers as the SEIU workers chanted in the room over their heads. In contrast, the downstairs crowd broke into applause several times for other speakers. 

The Ecology Center mustered several speakers from other organizations as supporters. Rich Auerbach of WEBAIC [West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies] said he would “urge the City to reject the Sloan-Vazquez report”.  

Andy Katz, representing the local Sierra Club chapter, drew applause when he related a “resolution urging the Berkeley City Council to reject the Sloan-Vazquez report as an incomplete report.” 

“Nearly 40 years ago the Ecology Center pioneered curbside recycling, originally a radical idea”, he said. “We believe that the report is flawed in several ways” and “much new information needs to be gathered.” 

“It’s important to be pursuing efficiencies,” Katz said, and “just terminating the [Ecology Center] contract based on the study wouldn’t do that.” 

“The Sloan Vazquez report is really a red herring for the problem the City faces”, speaker Monica Wilson said. 

“The Ecology Center became an iconic solution”, said Armando Nieto, Executive Director of the California Food and Justice Coalition. He criticized the study for recommending ending the Ecology Center contract and transferring jobs to the City. “Someone has to take responsibility for pitting workers against each other” he said. 

Arthur Boone of the Northern California Recycling Association drew laughter when he criticized the report for noting that one-worker automated pick-up works well in Emeryville, Albany, and Oakland and could be applied to Berkeley.  

“I haven’t seem a steep hill in Emeryville”, he observed. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a narrow street in Albany.” 

“I urge you to proceed very, very cautiously”, he concluded. 

“The Ecology Center picks up recycling with ethics”, said Marcus, a former employee there. “They fought for the ideology of zero waste…The Ecology Center has the specialized knowledge and the specialized ethics.” 

“It’s important to remember that the Ecology Center is a non-profit,” Sally Greenberg told the Council. 

Gwen Loeb, who identified herself to the Council as “one of your newest residents”, said Berkeley wasn’t the prettiest, nicest, or least expensive place to buy a house, but “we chose to invest here because of your eco-system.”  

“When you look at problems you look at them more than just cost and revenue”, she said. “The Ecology Center is extremely important to the town.” [A Gwen Loeb is also the development director of the Ecology Center.] 

Other speakers urged the City to use the controversy as an opportunity to revisit some of its assumptions about waste disposal and recycling. 

“This is your perfect opportune moment to establish a resource development department”, Dr. Dan Knapp of Urban Ore said. “You should think of getting out of the garbage business. You’re in the resource management business . . . Recycling develops more resources now than the garbage you pick up.” 

“We are a good deal for the City of Berkeley,” he said. Urban Ore has a contract to extract some saleable items from the waste stream: “Last year we saved the City of Berkeley 71 thousand dollars.”  

An Urban Ore employee added that the City should keep its transfer station open later and market itself as a place for private parties looking for quick disposal to take their debris after all other recycling and refuse operations have closed for the day. “Stay open late at night, keep your assets busy”, he urged. “You could increase your cash flow hundreds of thousands per year.” 

The meeting was often passionate but generally not acrimonious, except for a brief exchange at the beginning where Councilmember Kriss Worthington tried to ensure that representatives of several affected groups, including Urban Ore, would have an opportunity to make comments to the Council.  

A temporarily testy Bates tried to cut off Worthington’s speaker proposal, complaining, “we’re going to spend all of our time debating this nonsense”, but ultimately the testimony ended up largely as Worthington had suggested, with representatives of the Ecology Center, Urban Ore, unions, and other organizations speaking.  

Bates rotated speaker order among the advocates of the different groups, finishing up with members of the public who identified themselves as not speaking formally for any of the organizations. 

For more information:

The Sloan-Vazquez report and Council item can be found here

The Ecology Center posted arguments against the report and its recommendations here

Video of the Council workshop can be found here. Note that the workshop was the “special” meeting on March 8, 2011, not the immediately adjacent regular meeting.