The West Hollywood City Council, known its support of equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgendered people, for its progressive attitude on women’s issues and for its concern for the elderly and disabled, has an opportunity tonight to show that it also has a strong sense of ethics.
But given its history, the Council probably won’t avail itself of that opportunity — some of its members seemingly unaware that ethics is an important part of any definition of progressive.
The opportunity will come as the Council considers a proposal to extend for an unprecedented 15 years the trash pickup and disposal contract of Athens Services — a contract that could be worth more than $150 million to Athens.
The city’s Department of Public Works staffers, working with R3 Consulting, responded to Athens’ request for an extension by negotiating a very sound alternative. It would break the 15-year extension into three five-year periods during which Athens would have to meet certain standards set by the City. That alternative proposal, which is what the Council will consider tonight, would limit Athens’s ability to raise trash pickup rates on West Hollywood businesses, homeowners and apartment and condo building owners by a percentage tied to the Consumer Price Index.
However it also would allow Athens to request an increase in each of two five-year periods above and beyond the CPI increase. The city staff proposal says that Athens will need to justify the need for such a request. That option for Athens isn’t unreasonable, given the constant evolution of the waste management industry and the possibility of new state regulations that the City will have to ask Athens to comply with.
What is worrisome, however, is the possibility that future city councils will grant Athens a large increase that the more analytical Public Workers staffers don’t think is justified. Consider that in 2008 the City Council raised the hackles of West Hollywood’s business community (and the cost of running their businesses) by voting to let Athens increase its commercial trash pickup rates by 40 percent. Athens agreed to spread the increase over four years in exchange for the Council agreeing to extend its contract for four more years — giving Athens a double win. Councilmembers John Heilman and Abbe Land voted against the increase, arguing that Athens wasn’t able to justify it, while John Duran, Sal Guarriello and Jeffrey Prang voted for it.
One way to eliminate that worry is to ensure that the West Hollywood City Council has only the interests of its residents and local business owners in mind when it considers such proposals. To do that, the Council should bar candidates for City Council from accepting more than the current $500 contribution limit from current city vendors. An ordinance to that effect would have to aggregate contributions from the vendor, its affiliated companies and its owners and their immediate family members in calculating the $500 limit. Those elected also should be required to recuse themselves from discussing or voting on proposals involving prospective vendors who have contributed more than the $500 limit.
That still leaves the problem of contributions to so-called “independent” campaign committees — a tool notoriously used by the Republican Party (and supporters of some West Hollywood City Council incumbents) to subvert the democratic process. There the solution would be to require a Council member to recuse himself or herself from a vote on any issue backed by an “independent” campaign committee to which a current or prospective city vendor, its affiliated companies and its owners and their immediate family members have made an aggregate donation of a much larger sum — perhaps $5,000. (That larger threshold would reduce the likelihood that prospective vendors would form “independent” committees and make small donations to “support” candidates who they know are likely to oppose their bids for city services, thus blocking them from voting).
If such rules were in place, John Duran, whose campaigns for L.A. County Supervisor and re-election to the City Council have been given more than $23,000 in the past two years by Athens, its officers and members of the Arakelian family that owns it, would not be allowed to vote on the contract extension tonight.
Unfortunately West Hollywood doesn’t have such limitations in place. And it isn’t likely to until a majority of the current City Council is replaced with people who believe that ethical behavior is as important to the city’s reputation as the Council’s habit of taking stands on issues like the University of North Carolina’s ban on letting people of different genders share the same college dormitories. Nice as the Council’s opposition to that ban was, it needs to spend more time on making West Hollywood a better place for local businesses — those businesses that can’t afford to make the sort of campaign contributions that out-of-town developers, billboard magnates and lobbyists make to fund re-election of the Council’s incumbents.
Still, one can hope that John Duran, for one, will see the ethical light and recuse himself from the any discussion or vote on the Athens proposal tonight, as should Jeffrey Prang, who received $1,500 from Athens for his race for L.A. County Assessor and $500 in his council race last year. And let’s hope that other Council members who vote for the Athens proposal will declare that they will not accept future contributions from the company, its officers and its owners that total more than $500. That would be an important step toward improving the image of a city that looks like the Chicago of Southern California when it comes to ethics when it should look more like San Francisco.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified the city workers involved with negotiating an alternate proposal for Athens Services as being part of West Hollywood’s Economic Development unit. In fact the city’s Department of Public Works negotiated the contract revisions. The story has been corrected to reflect that.