Taking a stance against scavengers

NEWPORT BEACH — Officials here want to arrest them, and those in Costa Mesa want to inconvenience them.

Trash scavengers have become a bother for residents, officials say, and Newport-Mesa agencies are responding with different approaches to the issue.

On Tuesday night the Newport Beach City Council made it a serious offense to scavenge through trash. The Costa Mesa Sanitary District is considering locking some of its residents' trash cans.

The actions come during a down economy, when more and more people are scrounging through garbage for their income — and more residents are complaining about it.

"It's a way to hopefully deter scavenging and also give residents a sense of comfort," said Scott Carroll, general manager of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District. "But I don't believe you're ever going to have zero scavenging."

Carroll and the city's waste hauler, CR&R, are developing a program to distribute lockable trash cans to residents that request them. Residents would keep a key to lock the cans on collection day. The pull of gravity would open the lids once an automatic arm lifted the bin over the tops of garbage trucks.

Newport is taking a strict enforcement approach, police officials have said, because scavengers sometimes steal bikes and other personal property from residents' garages, and scavengers have been caught collecting information for identity theft.

Residents consistently complain to police, said Lt. Rob Morton at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

"For some people it really provokes a visceral reaction and they don't like it," he said.

"They come up to our doors, they come onto our patios," said Cynthia Kohler, a West Newport resident, who complained that groups of collectors pass through her neighborhood every day.

Many of them are unemployed, underemployed or homeless individuals, said Mike Carey, director of the Orange Coast College Recycling Center in Costa Mesa.

"It's definitely going to affect their livelihood," he said.

Carey discounted one of the officials' justifications for the changes — that the scavengers are stealing from the cities, which benefit from recycling revenue.

"It's not to create or maintain revenue for the city or the waste hauler," he said. "It's to keep people out of the trash."

Before Tuesday, police officers in Newport only had the ability to ticket the recyclers, so officials asked the city to pass a law that would give them the authority to arrest them.

"Newport Beach has been known as a target of opportunity and low risk," Newport Mayor Mike Henn said.

Henn said he understood that this may not be the police department's most pressing issue, but asked police leaders to "raise the priority of this issue, and by a way of announcing our new ordinance, make some arrests."

He also suggested impounding some of the scavengers' vehicles.

One of the justifications Henn gave for the strict rules is that Newport had more lax regulations than surrounding cities. But the Costa Mesa and Irvine police only issue citations, and Laguna Beach has an officer that reaches out to homeless scavengers and refers them to social services.

Santa Ana instituted a locked-can program in 2009, and Carroll from the Costa Mesa Sanitary District said it has been successful. He said scavengers probably won't flip the cans over to rummage through the contents because they are heavy and that would cause a stir.

"They try to get in and get out as quickly as possible," he said.

The $10,000 Costa Mesa program would be paid through funds from CR&R and would not be borne by ratepayers, Carroll said. Each container would cost about $62. The board of directors still has to approve the proposal.

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