Open, competitive bidding is always best way 

The San Francisco Examiner’s position on the awarding of government contracts has been consistent and straightforward. Transparent, competitive bidding is always the best public policy. With no-bid contracts or backroom-negotiated deals, the safeguards are not strong enough to ensure if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth of high-quality work.

The tortuous journey of San Francisco’s waste disposal landfill contract — which seems poised to enter another limbo period of lengthy delay — is a fine example of what can go wrong when the bidding process shows signs of being tarnished by closed-door complexities. The $112 million disposal contract was tentatively awarded in 2009 to Recology, San Francisco’s longtime basic trash pickup service. But it has essentially gone nowhere since then.

Under the 2009 agreement, the East Bay garbage company Waste Management, which operates the 55-mile-away Livermore landfill where Recology has trucked San Francisco waste since 1987, would lose its contract with The City to bury 15 million tons of trash. Instead, starting in 2015, Recology would have a 10-year contract to send 5 million tons of waste 135 miles by rail to its own new landfill in Yuba County.

Understandably, Waste Management has put up a fight claiming that The City did not properly solicit bids and was in violation of its own existing ordinances. The heart of Waste Management’s argument is that the San Francisco Department of the Environment allegedly only asked companies to bid on landfill disposal of waste and not the transportation.

Recology, however, bid on both disposal and transportation, and won both.

Waste Management’s objections gained some support when The City’s budget analyst issued a report recommending that the Board of Supervisors should consider submitting a measure to the voters that would repeal the 1932 garbage ordinance which, in effect, gives Recology a nonexpiring monopoly over city trash collection.

The Examiner could be expected to favor a citywide vote on bringing back competitive bidding for the entire cycle of a vital public service. And proponents of such an initiative are looking to obtain sufficient petition signatures to get on the ballot in 2012.

Meanwhile, Waste Management just filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to the Recology disposal contract and begin a new bidding process. This lawsuit arrived in San Francisco Superior Court two days before the board’s Budget and Finance Subcommittee was to vote on the disputed contract. The subcommittee did, in fact, approve the contract and send it on for vote Tuesday by the full Board of Supervisors.

The City Attorney’s Office is preparing to file an official response that the contract lawsuit “lacks merit,” and the whole situation will be mired in yet another judicial and legislative morass. The Examiner has no particular complaints about the quality of Recology’s longtime trash collection service. But without competitive bidding and solid oversight, how do we know if San Franciscans are getting their best deal?

It is time for City Hall to step away from the unintended consequences of its 1932 refuse law and let the voters decide.

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