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No Life Without Sunshine

A man named Sam Yorty once became mayor of Los Angeles by standing on the steps of City Hall and dumping a load of garbage to illustrate how inconvenient it was for the average housewife to recycle. That led to three decades of stuffing our landfills with recyclable glass, metal, plastic and paper. In the 1980s, city leaders planned to burn trash to produce electricity but discovered that the people of South Los Angeles were not excited about having a huge incinerator built in their neighborhood. So dumps in the Northeast San Fernando Valley continued to fill up — until activists like young Alex Padilla worked to close Lopez Canyon. That gave new life to the massive Sunshine Canyon landfill, a few miles to the west.

Now we recycle again, although not enough, and are talking about burning trash to produce energy, but haven’t done anything about it. That brings us to this week.

Begin with the proposition that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did something pretty smart, and pretty good, when he talked the operators of the massive Sunshine Canyon landfill, at the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley, into tacking another six months onto the city’s contract-renewal deadline. Now no one in City Hall really has to bite the bullet on the huge dump or on the contract with the shady garbage-disposal company until February, when city wonks presumably will have a better idea whether there really are alternative places to fling our 3,600 tons (every day) of junk. Hold in abeyance the question of what good those extra six months will do for us that the last decade of pondering could not. For now, let’s just say the delayed deadline is a good thing.

The first “deadline” for the city of Los Angeles to decide whether or not to keep on trucking to Sunshine Canyon for at least five more years came and went several weeks ago, in the period between the mayoral election and the inauguration. Incumbent Jim Hahn and challenger Villaraigosa both campaigned on ending the contract. Villaraigosa won — and almost immediately the only other company to have answered the city’s request for bids on taking away its trash dropped out, leaving us with Browning-Ferris Industries. BFI. Sunshine Canyon. Villaraigosa, who promised to end the BFI deal, became a born-again advocate for extending it.

Councilman Greig Smith of the North Valley (where a portion of the dump sits) wouldn’t deal, and stuck to his no-BFI guns. The landfill company’s people — perhaps through the goodness of their hearts, perhaps instead because they started to worry that L.A. really might take its garbage and its money somewhere else — gave the city an extra month and a half to think it over, and then a few more days.

And then — after the City Council stunned even itself last Friday by failing to muster the necessary eight votes to give BFI five more years — this latest six-month reprieve. The council approved it on Tuesday, after a weekend of huddling between Villaraigosa and BFI and after a weekend of Villaraigosa’s people trying and failing to get any of the four council naysayers (Smith, Padilla, Jan Perry and Janice Hahn) to change their minds about rejecting the contract outright.

The solution was vintage Villaraigosa. Through his personal intercession, he won a sort of ersatz consensus and steered the city away from the prospect of finding itself next July with 600 loaded garbage trucks driven by city workers all calling City Hall from the freeway on their cell phones to ask, “Uh, do you guys have any idea where to unload this stuff?”

True, the mayor made the people of the North Valley Coalition a tad grumpy by concocting a plan to keep BFI in the city’s pay, and garbage, for now. But they will meet with Villaraigosa in private next week to hear more about what the mayor really is going to do for them. And if he talks a good enough game, they may well be mollified. And that, too, would be vintage Villaraigosa. Meanwhile, the odds are that in six months the mayor will have helped his candidates get elected to fill the two vacancies on the City Council, securing his votes for the full five-year contract extension. That’s the smart part of his weekend maneuver. And he will also have time to push the city into recycling and trash-to-energy and the other alternatives that Smith wants, as part of a larger environmental agenda. That’s the good part.

Besides, ending the city contract doesn’t close Sunshine Canyon, or stop dumping there. Other cities will send in trucks that spew diesel fumes, rather than L.A.’s clean-burning trucks, and the dump will remain open until it fills, in about 25 years. Meanwhile, we’ll still have to find someplace to dump our trash, and on some days our trucks may well have to line up with everyone else at Sunshine Canyon, this time paying much higher spot-market rates.

No one knows this better than the people of the North Valley Coalition, who, over the last decade or so, have become experts in trash, landfills and city bureaucracy. So what’s their problem?

Maybe it has something to do with being lied to. Months of public hearings and negotiations on the dump led to a series of conditions that later were weakened by city planning officials — without hearings or negotiations. Plus there is the fact that BFI over the years has proved itself to be a vile, and sometimes even criminal, business partner.

And the real sticky part is that BFI is sometimes indistinguishable from the city. Its chief lobbyist, Arnie Berghoff, was once the City Council’s top staffer, the keeper of City Hall’s secrets and master of its processes. Berghoff co-chairs City Hall’s biggest annual must-go charity event with Mitchell Englander, Smith’s chief of staff (and, with Smith, one of BFI’s staunchest opponents). The ex-mayor of Carson, who went to prison for bribery and extortion in a plot that included BFI officials, was anti-dump Councilwoman Jan Perry’s chief of staff. Alex Padilla has taken campaign donations directly from BFI. Villaraigosa and a host of council members take their money from Berghoff. Where does the opposition stop and the support start? Where does City Hall stop and BFI start?

And, most of all, there is the mayor’s campaign promise — a promise that was, frankly, unnecessary. Villaraigosa could have promised simply that he would work to make sure L.A. gets into alternative trash disposal as soon as practical. But no. Nearly a half-century after Sam Yorty campaigned (in part) on a promise to end recycling, Villaraigosa campaigned (in part) on a promise to end the city’s Sunshine Canyon contract with BFI. That meant something to the people of the North Valley, and they may not be mollified by the mayor after all.

It’s like campaigning on the promise to lead a mayoral takeover of the school district, and then saying, “No, I didn’t mean now.” Or promising a subway, then explaining that you didn’t mean it would be built in your term. Or promising a new diversity in commission appointments, and then picking mostly lawyers and bankers from the Valley and the Westside.

The decisions, standing alone, may be good ones. But backing away from promises and commitments when they are no longer convenient does something to people. It’s what makes them grumpy.

Or worse. It’s what makes them cynical.


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