Garbage Hike Protest Vote Fails

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

July 14, 2022

Garbage rates are going up in Morro Bay after a failed protest.

The protest vote on a garbage rate hike in Morro Bay fell well short of enough votes to stop the latest rate hike, which is due to new regulations coming out of Sacramento and fees out of San Luis Obispo.

The City announced its protest vote on the new rates as required under the State’s Prop. 218 — The Right to Vote on Taxes Act — which opened a window for ratepayers to voice opposition to the increases. But it was the garbage company that handled noticing of the public.

If over 50% of the 5,353-garbage company accounts — some 2,677 valid, written protests — had been received, it could not have been enacted. 

The Council held a public hearing June 28 to receive any last minute protests with early votes being tabulated after the close of business on the day of the hearing.

City Clerk Dana Swanson said just 34, written protests were received by the end of the public hearing.

“Given there was not a majority protest,” Swanson told EBN, “the Council adopted Resolution No. 63-22 approving the rate increase.” 

That increase went into effect on July 1, so your next garbage bill should reflect the new rates.

It should be noted that getting garbage service includes one, grey regular garbage can, a green can for green wastes, and a blue one for recycling.

Why Raise Rates?

Part of the reason for this garbage hike was a change in state law that requires people to throw food scraps into the green waste bin and not the gray garbage can so food scraps and other organic garbage can be composted.

Another change comes after the Integrate Waste Management Authority or IWMA, the county-wide agency that covers solid waste disposal issues for the incorporated cities in SLO County, decided to enact a 5.4% “Solid Waste Management Fee” on gross hauler receipts, which also took effect July 1. 

The increase comes after the County Supervisors in 2021 voted to sever ties with IWMA and handle garbage service for the unincorporated towns itself.

That decision came after the District Attorney’s Office investigated the agency after allegations of mismanagement, fraud and embezzlement arose in 2018 surrounding the former IWMA executive director and the agency secretary.

The D.A.’s report found evidence of shoddy record keeping but not widespread fraud.

And yet the executive director was placed on leave and then retired. And the agency secretary faces allegations that she embezzled thousands of dollars.

What’s it Going to Cost?

So how much is this rate hike? One, 19-gallon waste wheeler, picked up once a week, was $14.30 per month and increases to $15.59, a difference of $1.30 per month. 

For one, 32-gallon waste wheeler, which is the typical size for residential customers, it was $22.86 but changes to $24.95, an increase of $2.07 a month. 

With 64-gallon wheeler service, it was $45.76 but jumps to $49.90, a hike of $4.15.

Commercial customers are seeing more significant rate hikes. For a 32-gallon waste wheeler the smallest available, it was $47.24 a month but is now $51.52, a jump of $4.28 a month. 

If your business needs it to be emptied more than once a week — to a maximum of six times a week — the rates go up quickly.

One 32-gallon can picked up three times a week will cost $131.55 a month and at the maximum six times a week, a 32-gallon can, will now cost $260.65 a month.

And for a small, 1-cubic yard dumpster, the rates have gone from $116.32 a month to $126.87 a month for a change of $10.55. 

A 2-yard container dumped once a week will now run $166.27 and goes up to $1,153.56 for 6-days-a-week service.

Issues With the Vote

The failure of the protest vote, despite there being a lot of animosity right now between the City Council and many residents angered over the Water Reclamation Facility Project, should not be a surprise, given that local voters, customers and ratepayers have never successfully protested any rate hikes — for neither water nor sewer, and now garbage rates.

But this vote wasn’t without some controversy after a local woman tried to cast her protest vote at City Hall and ran into difficulties.

Donald and Kristen Headland registered a formal complaint on June 16 after Mrs. Headland had trouble voting at City Hall.

Mrs. Headland said that on May 31, she “went to City Hall to place my 218 Protest Vote into the City Clerk’s designated ballot box. I spoke to an office staff member with a request to ‘place my 218 Protest Vote into the ballot box.’ The office staff member stepped away twice to get guidance during our conversation only to return stating ‘Give it to me. I’ll give it to the City Clerk.’

“I asked to speak with the City Clerk,” she continued, “but was told that ‘She is not available.’ On this day, I did not give my 218 Protest Vote to the office staff member. I was not able to place my 218 Protest Vote into the designated ballot box.”

She goes on to cite from the garbage company’s Prop. 218 notice they received in the mail and from the City Resolution (No. 44-18) that votes can be delivered or dropped off at the City Clerk’s Office in City Hall.

But, “The public is not allowed to access the City Clerk’s office, located in City Hall, because there is a locked door in the lobby of City Hall, that prevents people from entering the building where the City Clerk’s office is located,” Mrs. Headland wrote.

Meets With City Officials

Mrs. headland emailed her complaints to the City Manager and the City Clerk and a meeting was set up for June 8 at City Hall.

At the meeting she explained what had happened prior. “I suggested the 218 Protest Vote, ballot box be placed in the lobby of City Hall, during business hours; secured in place, with a lock; under the surveillance camera in the lobby; and with observation from city office staff.

“This would allow parcel owners or ratepayers the ability to deposit their 218 Protest Vote in the ballot box during the 45-day voting period. The City Clerk stated the lobby of City Hall was not a secure location to place the 218 Protest Vote ballot box.

“I requested the 218 Protest Vote ballot box be placed in the office area at City Hall, near the customer window so voters could witness the office staff placing their 218 Protest Vote into the ballot box.” 

City staff was apparently being told to place the ballots into the City Clerk’s office mailbox, which is a cubbyhole in a cabinet amongst many others in the copier room.

Mail Slots Not Secure

“The City Clerk’s mailbox has no form of security like a locking door on the front,” Mrs. Headland said. “The City Clerk’s unsecured, open-faced mail slot is not the location to place 218 Protest Votes during the 45-day voting period. This is a faulty chain of custody and not in any way secure.”

While she stressed that she has a right to place her ballot in a secured box, the City officials insisted the Clerk’s mailbox was secure. This was not sufficient for her. 

“The current undocumented directions for city staff to route 218 Protest Votes into the City Clerk’s mailbox,” she wrote, “opens the opportunity of voter tampering and puts in question the integrity of the City of Morro Bay Proposition 218 Protest Vote process.”

City Manager Responds

The Estero Bay News asked City Manager Scott Collins about the Headland’s complaint. Collins acknowledged the meeting and said, “While we aren’t required to make any changes [as our protest process follows Prop 218 requirements], we found several of their suggestions helpful and are considering implementing in the future.”

EBN asked why they didn’t have a locked ballot box in the lobby?

“Because our City Hall lobby cannot be monitored and secured at all times,” Collins said, “the decision was made to handle these Prop 218 protests in the same manner as the 2018 Rate Prop 218 Protest [on raising water and sewer rates to pay for the Water Reclamation Facility Project] whereby all protests received by mail or hand-delivered are date stamped by the City Clerk or Deputy City Clerk and placed in a secured box in the Clerk’s Office, which is locked at the end of each work day and on weekends for security. 

“As a courtesy, any member of the public who wishes to do so can go to the City Clerk’s Office and place their protest directly in the secured protest box.”

What’s the City’s process for handling these protest ballots? Collins explained, “The secured/locked box will remain secured until close of business on the day of the public hearing at which time we will count the number of protests received thus far, then add any received prior to the close of the public hearing and report out whether or not that number constitutes a majority protest.”

And the City is required to hang onto the ballots. “The protests are required to be retained for a minimum of two years following the public hearing,” Collins said.

City Hall also has a slot by the front doors where things like water and sewer bills and apparently protest votes can be dropped off. 

“Yes,” Collins said, “they can drop off protests at City Hall after hours through the slot. Or they can submit protests through mail or deliver directly to City Council during the public hearing.”

He disagreed that the mail slot isn’t secure. “The Clerk/Deputy Clerk handles all mail placed in the Clerk “mailbox.” We are confident our mail system is secure. Important to note Prop 218 protests are not ‘election ballots’ and elections are governed by a separate state code.”

Are City Staff Election Workers?

EBN asked Collins if the City Hall staffers were trained and certified election workers? They apparently are not, and the City doesn’t feel they have to be.

“The Prop 218 process,” Collins said, “is not an election and is not governed by the Election Code. The City staff member who received the protest is new and wanted to make sure with his co-workers they were handling the protest properly.

“They discussed how to handle the protest with their co-worker, and then advised Mrs. Headland they would deliver the protest to the City Clerk. My understanding is Mrs. Headland declined that option.”

“I think her preference,” he continued, “was to place the protest directly into the locked box, and did not want to leave the protest with front office staff to deliver to the clerk to time stamp and place in the box.

“Based upon our discussion with Mrs. Headland, in the future for Prop 218 processes [including for the remainder of this specific 218 process], as a courtesy, we will make sure that folks who want to place their protest directly into the secured box can do so.”

Complaint Points Out Issues

The complaint goes on to point out several things that the garbage company did wrong with its notices that were sent out that don’t appear to follow the State’s guidelines.

The Headlands’ letter requests three things from the City:

• A City Council review of the Morro Bay Garbage Co.’s “Notice of Public Hearing Regarding Proposed Solid Waste Rate Increase,” for compliance with State Law.

• Requested that a Resolution be adopted by the City Council, with step-by-step guidelines for parcel owners and ratepayers to personally deposit their ballot in the designate ballot box for submission and tabulation of Proposition 218 Protest Votes in the connection with rate hearings conducted.

• Recommend the designated 218 Protest Vote ballot box be placed in the City of Morro Bay, lobby of City Hall, during business hours, secured in place, with a lock, under the surveillance camera in the lobby, with observation from city office staff, for the 45-day Protest Voting period.

 

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