Huntington Park has a colorful history when it comes to awarding trash-hauling contracts. In 1988, the city in southeastern Los Angeles County handed a contract to a firm that had no garbage trucks, experience in the rubbish business — or trash bins.
In 2000, the city inked a $7-million agreement with a friend of the then-mayor without any competitive bidding.
Now Huntington Park's leadership is under fire for its newest trash-hauling contract, with hundreds of residents confronting the City Council with photos of piles of trash — and a pile of complaints.
Residents say garbage in some areas had piled up after Christmas, and others say the containers that United Pacific Waste provided were small, broken and in some cases came covered with maggots.
"When you notified us that you would start looking for a new company, we didn't know what kind of mess you'd bring us," Altagarcia Navarro told the council. "Things were better with the old company."
Residents of Huntington Park and other working-class, predominantly Latino cities of Southeast Los Angeles County are used to fighting for quality city services. The massive corruption scandal in nearby Bell four years ago was a wake-up call to many who began taking a more active role in monitoring City Hall and speaking out against perceived wrongs.
Problems with the new contract have sparked protests in Huntington Park, with some residents questioning officials and demanding answers.
Trash-hauling contracts can be among the most contested in city government, fraught with controversy because they can be so lucrative and also politically sentitive. This is a lesson Huntington Park is learning again.
Michael Chee, a spokesman for Huntington Park, said some of the problems are typical of a transition to a different trash-hauling company.
"It's logistic issues," Chee said. "A lot of the calls are stemming from people who fell through the holes."
Michael Kandilian, the company's CEO, said that in retrospect it would have been better to make the transition to a new trash hauler after the holidays.
"When you go on a transition like this, they're typically on the fiscal year-end for most cities," he said. "They're usually around June or July."
Kandilian said he was stumped about the contention that some of the containers had maggots. Most of the containers provided to residents were refurbished and assembled on the spot, he said. It's possible, he said, that some containers were not assembled correctly during the rush to fill orders.
"I'm scratching my head on that one, because I don't see how that's possible," Kandilian said. "We would never deliver a container that has maggots…. Believe me, the last thing I'm ever going to do is deliver a container to somebody with maggots on it."
The trash problems might have been a temporary blip, except that as in other nearby cities, Huntington Park has been freighted by suspicion over the years related to scandals over issues like towing, campaigning — and trash. The moment the garbage problems arose, many residents focused on how the vote for the contract happened almost half a year before.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in good governance, said that when it comes to politics the benefit of the doubt can be hard to gain, but easy to lose.
"It's like any relationship were you are trying to regain trust and someone makes a mistake and it makes you question everything," Levinson said. "It feeds into their preexisting belief that there is a problem with their government."
The 71/2-year garbage hauling contract granted to United Pacific Waste sparked criticism against city leaders July 28 when Mayor Rosa Perez called for a special City Council meeting in which United Pacific Waste was added to the final list of bidders after it had been previously disqualified.
On that day, Councilwoman Ofelia Hernandez told a packed council chamber that she had previously voted for the wrong company when she meant to vote for United Pacific Waste, contributing to the company's earlier disqualification. City records show that Hernandez had initially voted for the company, but subsequently voted for a company that had a similar acronym: UWS.
"I'm only human," she told residents.
Shortly after adding United Pacific Waste to the list of finalists, the council voted to give the $40-million trash hauling contract to the company. Two council members voted no.
"Something is going on at City Hall, and someone is playing favorites," said Ric Loya, a resident and former council member.
Kandilian called allegations of favoritism "baloney." "Everything was done in open public meetings," he said.
Chee said that the city hired consultants to make sure the bidding process was fair, and that United Pacific Waste was the lowest bidder. Mayor Rosa Perez said some of the complaints are tied to politics.
"There's nothing to hide and critics are trying to create concerns where there are none," Perez said in a written statement.
Almost 26 years ago, Huntington Park gave a contract to a firm that had no experience hauling trash — and no trucks. The company, H.P. Disposal, was owned by Eugene C. Fresch, a former Las Vegas casino operator, and father of the late Eric T. Fresch, who would go on to make $1.65 million in 2008 as the city administrator of nearby Vernon. The younger Fresch, who died in 2012 after a fall in the Bay Area, had been the president of a company that had run a casino in Huntington Park.
United Pacific Waste serves cities in L.A. and Orange counties, including Glendale and Irvine, according to the company's website. The privately owned firm said it is working on solving the problems in Huntington Park.
But Vice Mayor Karina Macias, who voted against awarding the company the trash contract and received nearly 100 complaints by phone and Facebook, said the way it was handed out undermines trust in local government.
United Pacific Waste's Kandilian said that things will get better, though he said he's become used to controversies involving trash contracts.
"It's not my first rodeo, I guess," he said.