TODAY GOLETA, TOMORROW THE WORLD: Forget about oil and water; the real political action in town is over trash. And based on the clash of the bull elephants over which trash company gets to collect Goleta’s refuse, this will be the case for the next few years. Underlying the intense war of words now being waged by MarBorg Industries and Allied Waste Services — the 800-pound gorilla versus the 8,000-pound member of the same species — over the relative advantages of competition or monopoly is a guaranteed revenue stream which, over time, will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the victor. As a result, the two companies have been working overtime to remind us how civic-minded they have always been. Last week, MarBorg’s political consultants notified the media that the Goleta Union School District was issuing a plaque thanking the company for months of the free garbage collection. Next month, it turns out, the school district will be issuing a similar plaque to Allied for doing the same thing, though not in the same quantities. School officials — knowing very well what happens when vinegar and baking soda are combined — didn’t think it advisable to have Allied’s Stephen MacIntosh and MarBorg’s Mario Borgatello sharing the same space at the same time. And they were right.
District officials are certainly happy for the attention — $125,000 in free service is nothing to sneeze at — but are struck by the timing. Once the City of Goleta’s trash franchise was seriously up for grabs, it was amazing how many phone calls and invitations school boardmembers — who have no say over the franchise — started getting. There is such a thing, however, as trying too hard, and last week, Allied’s MacIntosh popped a major-league hernia doing so. First, he offered the Goleta school district a gift of $250,000. That’s enough to raise at least one eyebrow. But the strings he then attached are sufficient to elevate both brows.
By way of explanation, MacIntosh is a desperate man playing a game of high-stakes catch-up with no time to spare. For years, he worked for the City of Santa Barbara pushing recycling and other diversion programs with notable energy and ingenuity. In this time, he worked hand-in-glove with Borgatello, a Santa Barbara home boy known in power circles simply as “Mario” — who over the years has established himself as a major corporate player in recycling efforts. This June, Allied — an out-of-town corporate subsidiary of an even bigger out-of-town corporate monolith — hired MacIntosh to help them do battle with Borgatello over a number of franchise agreements about to expire. Allied’s decision came in direct response to the Goleta City Council’s 3-2 vote — on March 16 — to exclude Allied from even bidding for the trash contract they’d held for 37 years. That contract is worth about $4 million a year. Instead, the council awarded the sole-source contract to Mario. Given that MarBorg already has another franchise for half of Goleta, this would give Mario a monopoly.
MacIntosh’s first assignment has been to get to get the Goleta franchise back in Allied’s hands, which means getting the Goleta council to pull a 180. Where Mario bought trash trucks powered by compressed natural gas — much cleaner — installed solar panels, and gave generously to the community, he would, too. In all regards, Mario enjoyed a significant head start. When it comes to community giving, MarBorg has been donating roughly $200,000 a year for the last five years to various community groups. That doesn’t count free or discounted services, nor all the campaign donations Mario has made to political candidates. MacIntosh told his corporate bosses they needed to match Mario dollar-for-dollar in checkbook diplomacy. He asked permission to give away $500,000. They said yes, but only with strings attached. That money could be given away only if Allied got its Goleta contract back.
When MacIntosh told Goleta school chief Kathleen Boomer last week that his offer was conditional, she ended then conversation immediately. “The timing was inappropriate,” she said afterward. For the record, MacIntosh never suggested, implied, insinuated, winked, or even nudged that Boomer should make a few phone calls on Allied’s behalf. But with a possible quarter-million sitting on the table, such an inference would be inevitable.
MacIntosh is clearly embarrassed this story ever got out; his meeting with Boomer was private. But now that the cat’s out of the bag, MacIntosh is going whole hog. At the Goleta City Council meeting this Tuesday, he offered, among other things, to donate $500,000 to various community groups if Allied got the contract. The more trash companies there are competing, he argued, the more the community benefits. MacIntosh delights in pointing out how Mario made exactly the same argument about eight years ago, when MarBorg successfully crow-barred half of the City of Santa Barbara’s trash contract away from Allied’s predecessor, BFI, which enjoyed an exclusive contract for decades. He cites one letter Mario wrote specifically citing the public benefits enjoyed by Goleta residents because of competition between MarBorg and BFI. To the extent Mario is talking out both sides of his mouth when it comes to competitive bidding, so too is Allied. In fact, on March 16, Allied Vice President Johnnie Perkins — from corporate headquarters — specifically asked Goleta councilmembers to sit down exclusively with Allied for 90 days. In that time, Perkins promised, Allied would strike a deal so sweet that competitive bidding would be a waste of time. Perkins had no clue what was about to hit him. Mario played home-court advantage to perfection. He started the meeting with at least two councilmembers already on his side. He packed the house with supporters — like the area Little League, the Chamber of Commerce, Venoco, Girsh Park, owners of the Camino Real Marketplace, and even a former statewide recycling czar — all extolling his considerable virtues. When Perkins said, “Let’s do lunch,” he had no idea he’d be the main course. When it was over, the only thing missing was the apple in his mouth.
If that wasn’t enough, the City of Santa Barbara’s trash franchise is already in play. Although I like both Mario and MacIntosh, I’d like it a whole lot better if City Hall saw fit to play both haulers off against each other. The franchise, after all, is worth $12 million a year. That’s a lot of apples, and I’d prefer it if they didn’t wind up crammed in our collective craw.