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Board Deadlocks on Proposal to Sell Landfills : Supervisors: Under the plan, the county would enter exclusive sales talks with the sanitation districts. But two board members object strongly, and another is absent.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A sharply divided Board of Supervisors deadlocked Tuesday on a recommendation that the county begin exclusive talks to sell its $200-million-plus landfill system to the Orange County Sanitation Districts.

Board Chairman Roger R. Stanton and Supervisor William G. Steiner supported the proposal, saying revenues generated from a sale would aid the county’s bankruptcy recovery efforts. But Supervisors Jim Silva and Marian Bergeson objected to the exclusive nature of the proposed negotiations and suggested instead that officials open up the process to competitive bidding.

Supervisor Don Saltarelli was absent from Tuesday’s meeting because he had an out-of-town commitment arranged before the special meeting was called. The board is expected to reconsider the proposal at an upcoming meeting when all five supervisors are present.

In other matters, the board approved contracts with two out-of-county trash haulers who plan to dump as much as 2,600 tons of garbage a day at landfills in Irvine and Brea.

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The trash importation is expected to generate about $9 million a year that could be used to help the county recover from bankruptcy, which was declared last Dec. 6 after officials discovered that $1.7 billion of the county’s investment pool had been lost through risky investments.

Activists from a wide assortment of community groups used Tuesday’s meeting to present an alternative county charter they want placed on the March ballot along with a charter prepared by a commission appointed by supervisors.

Calling the commission’s draft weak and ineffective, the activists said their alternative would radically reform government by placing more power in the hands of supervisors and creating new elected posts such as coroner and transportation director.

But most of Tuesday’s meeting dealt with the possible sale of the landfill system, considered one of the most valuable of the county’s salable assets.

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The sanitation districts offered to pay a $100,000 non-refundable fee to tie up the county in 75 days of exclusive negotiations. The district has long expressed interest in taking over the landfills. Earlier this year, it offered to pay about $200 million for the system.

Sanitation districts officials said the talks would give them time to formulate a purchase price by examining revenues generated by the system, as well as the maintenance costs and litigation associated with the county’s older waste facilities.

Steiner and Stanton said that while they support the idea of privatization, they doubted that a non-public entity would be willing to acquire both the profitable landfills that are currently in operation, as well as the closed sites that require expensive upkeep.

“The signs I’ve seen over the last 10 months is that the private sector is interested in the assets but not the liabilities,” Steiner said.

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But Bergeson and Silva argued that the exclusive contract goes against the concept of privatization because businesses interested in acquiring the landfills cannot submit their own competing proposals.

“I’m not convinced the public is best served by exclusive negotiations,” Bergeson said. “If we truly want to establish a value for the system, we have to go to the market.”

With neither side able to muster enough support for its position, the board decided to set aside the issue for now. “I’m absolutely baffled by this vote,” Stanton said. “I think the recovery process is not well-served.”

Supervisors went on to approve the garbage importation contracts despite opposition from local haulers who objected to the substantial discounts the out-of-county firms will receive on landfill fees. The out-of-county firms will pay $18-$20 per ton compared to $35 a ton charged to local haulers.

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“You can call this a tax on all the citizens of Orange County,” complained Dolores Otting, of 5-Star Rubbish.

County officials said the discounted rate was needed to attract out-of-county trash haulers. Such firms face added transportation costs that makes hauling trash across county lines to Orange County prohibitive at the $35 fee, they said.

Waste Management of California Inc. plans to import 658 tons of garbage a day from El Cajon and Oceanside to the Bowerman landfill in Irvine. Taormina Industries Inc. plans to import up to 2,000 tons of trash per day from Los Angeles and Long Beach to the Olinda landfill in Brea.

The alternative county charter discussed at Tuesday’s meeting was crafted by a coalition of anti-tax activists, civil rights organizers, and elected officials. It would result in dramatic changes in local government, from eliminating many special districts to allowing voters to mark “none of the above” on all county election ballots.

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