In the closing moments of the 1993 legislative session early Saturday morning, state lawmakers passed a bill to establish a new countywide waste authority, allowing Ventura County to merge competing trash agencies into one unified body.
Under this state-approved framework, local governments could set up a powerful new regional authority that would resolve every thorny issue local trash planners face: when to close Bailard Landfill near Oxnard, whether trash from west county cities can be dumped in the Simi Valley landfill, and how much residents and businesses should pay to have their trash hauled away.
In order to be implemented, the bill requires that the county and at least seven of its 10 cities agree to give the agency the sweeping powers it needs to set trash policies in the county.
“To have everyone participating in this countywide authority would be the ideal,” said Clint Whitney, general manager of the Ventura Regional Sanitation District. “It would have the power to make trash policy in this county stronger and better, and it would fix the system, which is definitely broke.”
But gaining the necessary support from the cities and the county, officials say, could be difficult to achieve. Local officials have been bickering over trash policies for years.
The legislation was seen as a chance to force the county, cities and their residents to put aside their differences to meet state mandates to cut in half the trash dumped in landfills within the next seven years. However, to the dismay of local trash planners, state officials gutted the bill that county and city officials wrangled over for two years and finally sent to Sacramento last month.
Although the bill calls for creation of a single entity, it does not mandate the agency’s ability to direct the flow of trash, determine financial responsibility for cleanup costs at county-owned dumps once they close, and other key provisions agreed upon by local officials during arduous negotiation.
County and city officials had hoped the state would dictate those powers instead of forcing them to be hashed out locally.
But state lawmakers balked at legislating the minutiae of a local agency and threw out many of the bill’s hard-fought stipulations, leaving only the framework of the agency in tact.
“They wanted to be micro-managed from Sacramento, and that’s not what’s going to happen,” said state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), who sponsored the legislation. “The cities are going to have to sit down now and work out the details.”
The way the bill is written, the authority’s powers can only be granted by a consensus of most local governments, trash planners say.
The bill now heads for the desk of Gov. Pete Wilson, who is expected to sign it into law.
“We worked long and hard to get here and now we’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Ventura County Solid Waste Director Kay Martin.
Sweating the details of the new agency promises to continue the quarter-century of bickering among local officials who try to coordinate trash policy.
Poking fun at the endless infighting among local government officials, Martin keeps a beady-eyed rubber rat atop her computer terminal. “There are so many of these guys around that they’ve become the mascot,” Martin said as she gave the rat a quick squeeze, causing it to squeak loudly.
Although Martin and Whitney, the county’s top trash officials, would lose their jobs if the authority is created, they joined city officials in supporting the authority.
Now local officials who labored to create the plan are waiting anxiously to see if any of the county’s 10 cities will use the bill’s changes as an excuse to back out.
And city and county trash planners are poring over the altered bill to make sure the new language does not imperil their own interests.
“We all fought like hell to get here and now we’re all afraid somebody will bolt,” Whitney said.
The struggle to form a countywide waste authority began two years ago when the county launched negotiations to come up with a unified trash management strategy--spurred by a state law that required landfill use be cut in half by 2000.
Realizing that it would be difficult to meet that goal individually, the county and cities, already scarred by deep rifts in trash-planning strategy, tried to come up with a single plan.
The talks were often bitter and contentious, with local officials notorious for unpredictable maneuvers wrangling to protect parochial concerns.
Oxnard, the county’s largest city, threatened to back out if the authority would not help pay for a $25-million recycling center the city plans to build. At one point, Oxnard also demanded an extra vote on the authority.
Simi Valley and Moorpark wanted assurances they were not being sucked into an agreement that would allow the west county cities to dump their trash at the Simi Landfill and force east county cities to help pay for the environmental cleanup after Oxnard’s Bailard Landfill closes.
And the Regional Sanitation District bridled at a study that suggested the new authority would operate with a core staff of 24, hiring private contractors to operate the Bailard and Toland landfills, duties now performed by sanitation district employees.
Last month the battle seemingly came to an end when the County Waste Commission, made up of elected officials from the county and each of the cities, finally struck an agreement. Their plan would combine the county’s three trash agencies into one authority with the power to make countywide waste-policy decisions. The central agency would also run Bailard and Toland landfills.
The agreement paved the way for a streamlined, countywide Waste Management Authority--the first of its kind in the state.
But the Legislature sent the work back to local officials, with a timeline to get the authority up and running.
The revised bill directs the Waste Commission and Sanitation District to perform a management study and audit of all trash functions in the county by March.
As proposed in the bill, the Sanitation District’s solid-waste division and its 100 employees would be folded into the same agency with the county Solid Waste Department’s 17 workers. The county’s Waste Commission, with its representatives from every local government, would become the authority’s presiding body.
A preliminary study of local trash agencies is scheduled to be presented to the Waste Commission on Thursday.
The bill directs the commission to turn the study into a workable plan by July. The plan then needs to be approved by the County Board of Supervisors, at least seven of the 10 cities and the Local Agency Formation Commission before January, 1995.
If approved, the authority could operate with the county and as few as seven cities as members. Under the legislation, cities that do not choose to join would not be subject to the authority’s policies.
Yet east county cities, fearing the authority will get bogged down in working out the details, are considering forming their own trash programs to meet the state trash-reduction requirements.
A task force made up of city leaders from Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark, and possibly Camarillo plans to meet in the next couple of weeks to decide whether to form a Joint Powers Agreement, which would allow them to build their own recycling center and set trash policies.
“Hopefully we can all get back together and have a countywide authority, but we’re not going to sit around and wait for that to happen when we have state deadlines to meet,” said Bill Davis, a Simi Valley City Councilman who also serves on the Waste Commission.
Solid Waste Department director Martin said such an alliance would not be necessary once the County Waste Management Authority is created, but suggested that the two could coexist without conflict.
An attorney for Oxnard called the rewritten legislation “sloppy,” and said she was still reviewing it to make sure it did not create any liability problems for Oxnard’s planned $25-million recycling center.
“The city is unsure what many of the provisions will result in,” attorney Margaret Sohagi said. “We’re hoping that everybody will adhere to the agreements made before the bill went to Sacramento.”
Trash planners echo that sentiment, waiting to see whether the cities and the county will remain cool-headed while sorting out the legislation and working to meet its deadlines.
“There’s the feeling that someone is going to do something to disrupt the accord,” said Supervisor Maggie Kildee, who chairs the County Waste Commission. “The challenge is to hold together and stick to the plan we all agreed on.”
Top Trash Officials
If the new countywide trash authority is created, the county’s two leading trash planners would lose their jobs and their agencies would be folded into one.
Agency: Ventura County Solid Waste Management Department
Duties: Prepares and implements state-mandated recycling plans, regulates landfill operations and trash hauling in unincorporated areas
Budget: $1.4 million Employees: 17
Salary and Benefits: $98,600
Title: General Manager
Agency: Ventura Regional Sanitation District
Duties: Oversees operation of Bailard and Toland landfills and 16 sewage and water treatment plants
Budget: $25 million, with funding from Bailard fees and treatment plants Employees: 141, including about 100 who work at the Bailard and Toland landfills.
Salary and Benefits: $115,971
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