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The Elephant on the Table (Oct. 13, 1999)

Yes, as many of you have let me know, this column — actually a version of it — now appears every Friday in the Ukiah Daily Journal.  Counting this rag, plus the Anderson Valley Advertiser, that means yours truly’s political propagandizing is read by more people, in more places, than that of any other scribe in Mendocino County.  Speaking quite objectively, it is not accidental that my work appears in a trifecta of the North Coast’s best newspapers.  That’s not bragging, that’s just a plain fact.

For years, people in high and low places pushed to get my stuff into the UDJ.  But it never happened because it wouldn’t have been a good fit.  However, since K.C. Meadows moved in as UDJ editor, things changed, all for the better, in my opinion.  Meadows has remade the Journal into a newspaper that does a damn fine job of reporting local news.  K.C.’s Sunday column, along with her editorials, are always worth reading and always on the money — at least when she agrees with me.  

I’ve had a long-standing relationship with Bruce Anderson and his AVA.  Anderson is one of the best pure writers I’ve ever known.  Bruce likes to hold himself out as a hell-raising socialist but he’s really something much more historically mainstream.  Like myself (and I suspect Meadows to a certain degree), Anderson is a throwback to the late 19th century Progressive-Populist movement.  We don’t have a home in the two-party system, are not politically correct, or have any use for NorCal’s legendary legions of phony “activists,” New Age nuts, hypocritical old-hippies-gone-straight-and-reborn-as-crypto-fascist government officials, unhinged feminists, blow-hard educrats who “do it for the kids”, outside corporations which screw working folks by downsizing jobs across borders and over the seas, dope growers who put nothing back into their communities, and all the scam-artist consultants, grant-writing deadbeats and government hand-out specialists (hello, NCRA) who suck the public treasury dry in the name of “public service.”

As I said, one of the reasons I’m proud to associate my work with Anderson and Meadows is we’re all so mainstream.  That’s truly the American way.

* * *

Solid waste matters in Mendoland are never quite what appear to the naked eye.

Earlier this year, an exasperated Patti Campbell — near the end of a marathon garbage debate — rebuked her BOS colleagues for pretending not to see “the elephant on the table.”  She advised her colleagues to wrap up pronto as she had to attend a Fort Bragg meeting where an “important issue” — obviously a matter totally unrelated to garbage — awaited her.

Although Campbell’s metaphoric pachyderm remained unacknowledged, all the principals knew she was referring to a certain North State Street garbage transfer station project consigned to legal limbo for the last two years.   That endeavor by the Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority (MSWMA) to site, build and oversee a multi-million dollar, monopolistic, mega-trash facility ($4 million in construction costs, plus a long-term public contract worth some $50 million to $60 million) came a cropper due to litigation, political stumbling and other developments far too convoluted to recap at this time.  The bottom line is the failed MSWMA project provided the opportunity for Ukiah and Willits to foster private-sector partnerships with trash-haulers to build and operate relatively ratepayer-friendly transfer stations in those cities. In Willits, north county hauler Jerry Ward’s transfer station has the appropriate blessings of permitting and regulatory agencies, and should be up and operating in a few months.  However, due to use permit restrictions Ward’s transfer station cannot handle all of the county’s waste stream.  Thus the need for a second transfer station in Ukiah.  Once opened, the Willits facility will process all of the north county’s trash, including Fort Bragg’s waste stream.  Garbage from the greater Ukiah area, as well as the South Coast, is planned for processing through the proposed transfer facility on Taylor Drive in south Ukiah.

James Ratto, owner of Ukiah-based Solid Wastes Systems, is seeking final permitting and environmental approvals for the Taylor Drive project.  But that project is now in jeopardy due to Ratto’s inability to follow instructions.  It seems Mr. Ratto doesn’t read maps very well.  His franchise agreement — between the county and Ratto’s subsidiary, Pacific Coast Disposal — to pick up south coast garbage required him to dump said trash at the South Coast landfill near Gualala.  Instead, Mr. Ratto’s garbage fleet strayed into Sonoma County — on at least six different occasions — where trash was disposed of at our sister county’s dumps.  Last week, the Supes voted unanimously to begin the process to revoke Ratto’s South Coast garbage franchise.  If revocation occurs, then Ratto is excommunicated from the county’s garbage-hauling fraternity as a “Bad Boy” pursuant to an ordinance of the same name.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean Ratto’s Ukiah transfer station is deep-sixed.  That’s because that facility is under the jurisdiction of the city of Ukiah, which is not bound by county revocation action.  

However, the county could refuse to send its waste stream from unincorporated areas through any facility operated by Ratto.  Which raises the question of where the county would process any garbage not handled by Ward’s Willits facility.  Well, that gets us back to the aforementioned MSWMA North State Street site.  As I said earlier, nothing is quite as it appears in garbage politics.

Even though the North State Street site has sat vacant for all the years MSWMA has owned it, taxpayers are still paying down on its $550,000 purchase price.  MSWMA claimed that it had a buyer willing to pay over 800 grand for the nine-acre property, but terminated the prospective deal in August for unexplained reasons.  It’s of some interest that “Wrong Way” Ratto’s wayward South Coast meanderings first became known to county officials at about the same time.  Any connection?  Who knows, nobody’s talking.  By the way, what’s going on with Barry Vogel’s investigation of Ratto’s South Coast operation?  Vogel, who heads up the DA’s Civil/Environmental Enforcement Division, was last seen wearing a pith helmet, stalking Ratto at his preliminary revocation hearing 10 days ago.  Since then he hasn’t come to ground, while Ratto’s trail grows colder.  Perhaps, Vogel’s new “volunteer” investigator and well-known super-sleuth, Norm deVall, has picked up the scent.  deVall, the old posturing windbag of a Supervisor who set county government back at least 50 years during his BOS tenure, is on-board with Vogel in some part-time but unspecified capacity.  As a Supe, deVall’s solution to the garbage mess was to store it in concrete silos until the problem went away.  If he stumbles across Ratto’s lair, he’s liable to end his days in a silo.

More recently, as reported here last week, an obscure Federal Aviation Agency bulletin mysteriously turned up on the desk of P&B officials.  The FAA circular addresses the danger of birds attacking airplanes because they’d be attracted to garbage at transfer stations.  The connection here is Ukiah’s airport is a neighbor of Ratto’s proposed Taylor Drive facility.  In any event, one way or the other, it appears that the long dormant MSWMA project may be resurrected.  Which is good news for MSWMA General Manager Mike Sweeney — could it be he’s a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, as well as a recreational reader of FAA bulletins? — but decidedly bad news for anybody desiring non-monopolistic, efficient, ratepayer-friendly trash disposal.

As written here many, many times before, MSWMA is a redundant, tax-siphoning bureaucracy.  MSWMA’s operational and administrative apparatus should be shut down for good.  MSWMA’s current portfolio, which includes recycling education, HAZMAT duties and illegal dump clean-up should be transferred to the county’s Solid Waste Division, run by a bright, capable and honest-to-a-fault director, Paul Caylor.  MSWMA would then continue in its present form — a five-member board representing the county’s unincorporated areas and the cities of Fort Bragg, Willits and Ukiah.  But its charter would be restricted to acting as a clearing house for coordinating solid waste-related matters only:  All the heavy lifting would be done by the Solid Waste Division.  MSWMA most certainly would not be in the transfer station business.  At the beginning of this decade, county and city leaders made the decision to get out of the garbage business by closing landfills and shipping trash to distant landfills.  It’s a taxpayer rip-off to fund two overlapping garbage agencies.  The county’s Solid Waste Division is a model of governmental efficiency.  MSWMA is a model of bureaucratic boondoggling.  The decision is a no-brainer.

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