Los Angeles Times, CA
Jan 2 2009

Trash contract touches off legal disputes in Montebello

Attempt to put an exclusive waste-hauling contract to a referendum
heads for court -- as do as two lawsuits over the proposed ballot

By Catherine Ho
January 2, 2009

Even for a city used to political upheaval, there's a lot of trash
talk lately in Montebello.

A divided City Council in this Eastside suburb touched things off last
summer when it voted to award exclusive trash rights to one company,
Athens Services, beginning in 2015. The action would force out 12
independent haulers who have served the community for decades. As part
of its agreement, Athens would grant the city a one-time payment of
$500,000, and a 7.5% share of its monthly revenues.

Then-Mayor Bill Molinari and Councilwoman Mary Anne Saucedo-Rodriguez
voted against the deal, saying that it was unfair to residents who
could end up paying more for trash collection because of a lack of

"It's the right of choice to get the best price for goods and
services," Molinari said. "When they take away your choice, the
consumer is always the victim and has to pay more."

Since then, residents and haulers have repeatedly turned out at City
Hall to protest the agreement. Union leaders pulled their endorsements
of Councilman Robert Urteaga, one of three council members to support
the deal. And now there is talk of a recall campaign -- the second in
less than two years.

Three council members were voted out in 2007 over whether the county
should provide police and fire services to the city and whether that
issue should be placed before voters.

All this in a city where the fight over trash rights has turned
simmering political rivalries into red-hot feuds.

"We're upset because it didn't go up to bid," said Aron Petrosian,
president of Commercial Waste Services, an independent trash hauling
company that also serves Montebello. "Athens might be qualified, but
they're not the only ones that can do it."

Montebello, a suburb of 62,000, is predominantly Latino but has a
significant Asian and Armenian population. Armenian American families
have been entrenched in the hauling industry here for generations, and
the squabbling over trash rights has a personal dimension for some who
have family members working for competing haulers.

After the council's vote, opponents began gathering signatures for a
referendum on the Athens' contract.

Within days, haulers had collected nearly twice the 2,530 signatures
needed to qualify a referendum for the ballot.

But two lawsuits have been filed against the city, one challenging the
validity of the referendum. The first, filed Oct. 6 by Montebello
resident Irene Villapania, alleges that petitioners left out key
information to collect signatures. It seeks to block the city from
putting the referendum before voters. Athens is paying the legal fees.

The second lawsuit, filed Oct. 14 by Montebello residents Mike and
Rosemary Torres, demands that the city make a decision on the
referendum. Both suits are pending in Los Angeles County Superior
Court, with hearings scheduled for this month.

In October, the same majority on the council who approved the contract
voted to keep the referendum off the March ballot, sending it to the
courts for a judge to decide.

The council's vote also rankled powerful labor interests. Maria Elena
Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County
Federation of Labor -- which helped elect Urteaga in November 2007 --
pulled the union's endorsement of the councilman.

"Your recent actions in your capacity as council member on the
Montebello City Council has caused great harm to the men and women
that work and live in the city of Montebello," Durazo wrote in an
Aug. 20 letter. "Further, your actions have caused your previous
supporters to question your commitment to support working people."

The day after the council voted to send the referendum to the courts,
a group opposed to the contract posted details of Urteaga's criminal
record on a website, including a 1999 no-contest plea for grand theft
of personal property totaling $30,000, according to court documents.

Urteaga admitted the felony conviction, saying that he got tangled up
in sports gambling during college and stole money from a friend to get
himself out of debt. He pleaded no contest. "I got in over my head,
took money that didn't belong to me, thought I could pay it back and I
couldn't," he said. "I owned up to my mistakes, paid full restitution
and did community service. I regret that it happened every day of my
life, but it's made me a much more honest person because I don't want
to be caught up in that type of situation again."

Urteaga said he voted for the contract because it would generate
revenue for the city by granting a one-time payment and a percentage
of subsequent revenue.

"I look out for the residents' best interest," he said. "My job isn't
to protect the haulers, it's to protect the residents."

All commercial haulers pay 13% of their revenue to Montebello. If the
contract with Athens goes through, Athens would pay the city a
franchise fee of 20.5% of revenue on all commercial accounts.

Athens has hauled residential trash, which includes pickup for
single-family homes and apartments with fewer than four units, in
Montebello since 1962. The company, along with 12 other haulers, also
collects commercial waste.

Urteaga said the city didn't open the contract for bidding because any
bid made now would be null and void by 2015, and companies would have
to rebid at that time anyway, he said. The Athens deal was presented
only after the company approached the city administrator with a
proposal for an exclusive contract, he said.

Some Montebello residents stood behind the decision to sign the
contract, saying Athens is the best hauler to get the city to comply
with environmental standards. Others said their elected officials were
looking out for themselves.

"I'm not happy because the City Council is supposed to represent us,
not sell us out to whoever will give them the highest kickback,"
Montebello resident Raul Yanez said.

>From 2005 to 2008, Athens made contributions totaling $21,100 to the
three council members who supported the contract, according to city

Dennis Chiappetta, executive vice president of Athens, said the
referendum was "fatally flawed" because petitioners lied to residents
to get their signatures. He said Athens is the best suited to serve
Montebello because it has a material recovery facility that converts
waste into recyclable materials.

But Petrosian said he and other haulers just want a fair chance at
keeping their business in Montebello.

"How can they not put it out to bid not just to me, but to other big
conglomerates?" he said. "What are they afraid of?"