Broad-Based Lobbying Saved Dump

Times City-County Bureau Chief

Lobbying at Los Angeles City Hall has always had a distinctive quality.

At the state Capitol, for example, lobbyists have to wait outside the Senate or Assembly chambers to talk to legislators, or they must watch the voting from the balcony.

Not at City Hall. Lobbyists there summon council members over to red felt barrier ropes near where the lawmakers sit to make a pitch for their clients. Sometimes, in moments of desperation, they signal from the audience.

And this week, City Hall saw something else unusual in legislative advocacy--lobbying by computer-directed phone calls and mail.

One of the world's biggest garbage disposal companies, Browning-Ferris Industries of Houston, won a victory Wednesday by using a phone bank and direct-mail campaign to work up voter support to save its Sunshine Canyon Landfill in the hills above Granada Hills.

That approach was combined with traditional lobbying methods. A substantial number of the City Hall lobbyist corps, including Maureen Kindel, the former president of the city Board of Public Works, which is in charge of waste disposal, were hired by the company.

It worked. Browning-Ferris won a six-month delay in enforcement of a city proposal tightening regulation of the Sunshine Canyon Landfill, perhaps signaling a major change in how City Hall lobbying will be done.

Browning-Ferris lined up backing from groups ranging from a gardeners' trade association to a Goodwill Industries thrift shop. It was a striking example of how Southern California business is using the techniques of modern political communication to battle what it regards as overly restrictive, growth-limiting environmental legislation.

"It's very similar to a political campaign," said Lynn Wessell, the Los Angeles political consultant who directed the campaign for Browning-Ferris Industries. "It is framing what the issues are, getting people to talk and write (to council members), which is very difficult these days."

"I think the issue can serve as a good example of how you get your message out," said Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which supported Browning-Ferris.

Opponents of the project complained about the elaborate and expensive campaign. "We're talking about a few hundred dollars (spent by dump opponents) versus a few thousand dollars," said Granada Hills resident Don Mullaly.

But some political analysts saw it as the latest chapter in a long story of business adopting the tactics of the environmentalist grass roots organizations who beat them in the 1970s and most of the '80s.

In that era, homeowner groups in the Santa Monica Mountains forced the city to stop using landfills in canyons surrounded by homes. They did it by showing up at community meetings armed with information, by providing the press with documents and news releases aimed at proving the dumps were damaging and, ultimately, by participating so strongly in political campaigns that council members listened to them.

Slow-Growth Movement

The same sort of political drive fed a slow-growth movement. With homeowner and environmental groups leading the way, voters in cities around the state passed slow-growth or no-growth ballot measures.

In 1988, there was a change. Business opponents of a slow-growth measure in Orange County raised $1.8 million and hired campaign consultant Wessell. Using a computerized file of potentially favorable voters--those, for example, whose jobs depended on growth--he hit them with telephone calls and mail. The measure, running ahead in the polls through much of the campaign, lost.

Browning-Ferris faced the same sort of environmental and homeowner opposition against its plans to expand the Sunshine Canyon Landfill. In 1987, several hundred homeowners formed the North Valley Coalition with the aim of closing the dump. Coalition members such as Mary Edwards spent hours studying the technical aspects of garbage. Ken Bell began putting out a news letter. Mary Ellen Crosby, a veteran of St. Louis politics, used lessons learned in her politically tough home town to organize a North Valley grass-roots campaign.

Politicians quaked. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district included the proposed expansion area, said the community fears had to be considered. Councilman Hal Bernson, in whose district the present dump is located, said the dump should be closed.

Lobbyists Hired

Browning-Ferris hired lobbyists to do the usual work in City Hall, and gave campaign consultant Wessell the job of organizing a grass-roots counter-campaign.

This year, he put together a computerized list of 30,000 to 35,000 San Fernando Valley residents considered most likely to vote. They had gone to the polls in the low-turnout Los Angeles city election this spring. The idea was that these people were most likely to respond to political appeals for action.

Paid workers in a phone bank--located in Washington--called them, urging them to support the dump, warning of the impending garbage disposal crisis and telling them that garbage rates would soar if the dump were closed.

At the end of the conversation, people were asked if they wanted to talk to their council member. If so, a device switched them to the council office. If they did not know the name of their council representative, a computer program, which had arranged names and districts, permitted the phone system to switch them to the correct office.

Computerized letters went out, urging them to contact council members. With their permission, computerized letters were sent to council offices under their names. One said "I live adjacent to the Sunshine Canyon Landfill. . . . I find the landfill to be acceptable neighbors. . . . I can also tell you that my family, and many other families, do not want to be forced to pay a lot more for trash disposal."

A newsletter, the Sanitation News, was started to match the North Valley Coalition newsletter. Organizations, even school children, were taken on tours of the dump.

Getting People Involved

"We had to get people involved," said Mike Lawlor, senior vice president of Browning-Ferris.

By Wednesday evening, the night before the vote, a compromise was reached with Bernson. It was pushed along by another development. A state board had ordered limitations placed on another city dump, at Lopez Canyon. In addition, the council faced controversies over dumping at five other locations.

On Thursday, the council acted. It postponed for six months a deadline that would have forced the company to move its disposal operations away from homes. Browning-Ferris said that would have forced closure of the dump. The compromise gave the company time to look for alternative ways to keep the dump open. Company officials, watching the vote the next day in the council chambers, said they were pleased.

The lesson, according to business leaders, was instructive for the future. For example, the business community is now engaged in a fight against the tough air pollution control plan proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Remy, leading the fight for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said that while the situations are not precisely comparable, the Browning-Ferris campaign is "a useful example" to guide business campaigners.

LANDFILL SITES These are the landfills involved in disposing of trash generated in the city of Los Angeles.

Chiquita Canyon Landfill--Another possible dumping site for the city, but expected to close in 1991.

Sunshine Canyon Landfill--Seeking to expand: fighting restrictions threatened by Los Angeles city officials on present operations; won six-month delay in enforcement of the restrictions.

Calabasas Landfill--Owned by Los Angeles County, receives trash from the city; may be called on to take more with threatened closing of other dumps.

Elsmere Canyon Landfill--Would be operated by city and county if agreement is reached by the two government entities on waste disposal policy.

Lopez Canyon Landfill--Ordered closed by the state.

Bradley West Landfill--City dumping site.

BKK Landfill--City dumping site.

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