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Bonding at the Urinal

It was clear this hearing of the Planning and Land Use Committee would be different when a worker wheeled in a porcelain urinal on a red dolly and asked one of the city’s top lobbyists, "Where do you want this?"

The prospect of saving millions of gallons of water a year is no laughing matter, and neither are allegations that the city may be flirting with diphtheria epidemics or exploding sewer gas. But environmentalists, plumbers and city workers found themselves involuntarily flipping between anger and uncontrollable chuckles when arguing over a motion to change city codes to permit installation of no-flush urinals.

The anger came from what plumbing-industry leaders argued is an attempt by politically well-connected Falcon Waterless Technologies to bypass rules for testing new products and amend plumbing regulations. A succession of plumbers and Department of Building and Safety officials warned of potentially fatal consequences of allowing the standard flush urinals to be replaced by the waterless variety, which relies on a chemical cartridge. In other countries, they told committee chairman Ed Reyes, lower standards for human-waste disposal lead to buildup of germs in restrooms and gases in pipes, which could ignite and explode. Remove the flush factor from urinals, they said, and the same could happen here.

But it was not easy to keep a straight face. One plumber caused gasps when he strode toward the urinal on display in the meeting room. "Oh, don’t worry," he reassured the assembled crowd. The he donned several layers of protective gear to dramatize what he said maintenance workers would have to deal with when confronting the chloroxylenol in the urinals’ disposable plastic traps. Another pipe tradesman found it necessary to advise the committee that trips to flush urinals at football games are a bonding experience for fathers and sons.

Howard Sunkin, a Cerrell Associates Inc. lobbyist representing Falcon, called the stories of exploding toilets and spreading disease a "scare tactic on behalf or organized labor," which he said wants to protect the jobs of plumbers and pipe fitters who are called in to repair the moving parts on flush toilets.

Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who has long pressed environmental causes and may already be responsible for saving millions of gallons of water yearly by leading the charge to mandate low-flush toilets in the city, first proposed permitting the new waterless devices, already in use in Pasadena and numerous federal facilities. The motion went to the Environmental Quality and Waste Management Committee where Nate Holden, acting as a committee of one, voted to pass the matter along to the full council for approval.

But then Reyes, prompted by concerns from Building and Safety officials, stepped in and asked that the matter come to the land-use committee. That gave labor leaders time to rally their troops, and the council became receptive to the request to study the water-saving devices for at least 60 days — long enough to assure that the term-limited Galanter and Holden are no longer on the council.

It turns out that Falcon is backed by Marc Nathanson, a cable-television pioneer and friend of Bill Clinton. Nathanson founded Falcon Communications while in his 20s, then sold the firm to Charter Communications, which owns a cable franchise in Los Angeles, and remained active in Charter’s management. Nathanson’s Mapleton Investments has made numerous donations to city candidates, and Nathanson himself has given $1,000 to Deron Williams — a top Holden aide who ran to succeed his boss as councilman of the 10th District. Falcon also has given $500 to Williams.

Holden bristled at any suggestion that he hurried the motion along in order to help a firm that is backing his aide.

"I look at the idea and I act on the merits," Holden said.

He also questioned why the item should have been sent, of all places, to the Planning and Land Use Management panel. "I don’t think this is a land-use issue at all," Holden said. "The chairman of the Planning Committee asked for it. I don’t know why he asked for it, but he did ask for it."

Besides, Williams’ runoff foe, Martin Ludlow, also got $500 from a Mapleton executive.

Councilman Eric Garcetti, who backed Galanter’s proposal, said he wanted to make sure the trade unions have a chance to buy in to the proposal.

"If it takes a year to do, great," Garcetti said, "but I don’t want it to fall into a black hole. There’s no question that water is the big giant out there in terms of public policy. Power crisis will pale in comparison."