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Politics & Policy

Garbage fight heats up as Recology rival alleges possible pay-to-play

The Recology recycling/composting plant is at the crossroads of Tunnel and Recycle. | Camille Cohen

Two of the nation’s largest waste companies may be on the cusp of a legal battle over a key piece of San Francisco’s trash business following revelations that garbage giant Recology secured a lucrative city contract under suspicious circumstances.

Waste Management of Alameda County (WMAC), a subsidiary of the Texas-based garbage company, is challenging the integrity of a landfill-disposal contract that a former San Francisco official signed with Recology shortly after asking the firm for a $25,000 donation in 2015.

The official who solicited the donation, former Department of the Environment director Debbie Raphael, resigned earlier this month after The Standard first reported on the payment. Her resignation also came ahead of a report by the San Francisco Controller’s Office detailing her relationship with Recology. The controller found that the donation created the appearance of “pay-to-play.” Raphael asked Recology for the donation to sponsor a series of Earth Day events featuring her boss, the late Mayor Ed Lee.

The controller conducted its report alongside the City Attorney’s Office in response to Recology being embroiled in a larger corruption scandal surrounding former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, in which the firm admitted to overcharging ratepayers nearly $95 million. Under a voter-approved ordinance from 1932 that is separate from the landfill contract, Recology has a monopoly on residential trash collection in San Francisco.

WMAC, which bid against Recology for the landfill disposal contract and lost, now alleges that there was more to the selection process than just the “appearance” of pay-to-play. The firm is calling on San Francisco to strip Recology of the contract and hand it to WMAC. 

The company’s president, Barry Skolnick, wrote a letter to Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors on Friday claiming that Raphael tilted the bid process in favor of Recology.

“Ms. Raphael’s actions, in our view, thwarted a fair and lawful competitive bid process,” the letter said.

WMAC has a history of opposing San Francisco’s decision to award the contract to Recology, a long-simmering fight that dates back years before these latest revelations. Before contracting with Recology to dump the city’s waste at its Hay Road Landfill in Solano County, the city contracted with WMAC to dump its garbage at the firm’s Altamont Landfill in Alameda County.

In 2015, WMAC sued over Raphael’s decision to award the contract to Recology, challenging the merits of the bidding process that San Francisco used to select the firm over WMAC years earlier. While a judge ruled against WMAC, Skolnick said the decision “might have played out differently” had the company known about Raphael soliciting the donation.

Recology spokesperson Robert Reed rebutted the claims and insisted that the city's decision to award the firm the contract was "wholly unrelated to any donation Recology made to be a sponsor of the Earth Day events in 2015."

"Waste Management’s irresponsible assertions about the bid process were resoundingly rejected at the time, and should be again," Reed said.

Attempts to reach Raphael were not immediately successful.

David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University and a critic of Recology’s trash monopoly, said neither company should control the landfill-disposal contract without a competitive bidding process that is both transparent and fair.

“What you are getting here is one big player replacing another big player,” Lee said. “If the process was not fair, if there was some flawed process, it should go back out to bid.”

Last year, Lee gathered signatures to inject competition into the local garbage game after Recology became implicated in the Nuru corruption scandal, but the effort fizzled out.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin later garnered support from every member of the Board of Supervisors as well as Mayor Breed to place a measure on the June ballot that would reform the oversight process for setting garbage rates without breaking up Recology’s monopoly.

But Lee said he was disappointed that the measure, Proposition F, doesn’t go far enough. He worried that City Hall may have squandered an “an opportunity to really do real reform.”

“If you are going to go into the plumbing,” Lee said, “You might as well do a real fix and not clear out the hair clog.”

This story has been updated with a comment from Recology.