By Mark Gutglueck
It appears that in relatively short order Colton Councilmen David Toro and John Echevarria along with Councilwoman Kelly Chastain are going to politically outmuscle Mayor Frank Navarro and Councilman Luis Gonzalez to allow CR&R to perpetuate the trash hauling franchise in the 16-square mile city of 54,911 population it and its corporate predecessors have had sewn up for thirty years ending in 2026. That extension will run the hold the succession of companies has had on the city another decade, until 2036.
Toro, Echevarria and Chastain have given indication they are purposed to roll the franchise contract over to CR&R once more despite widespread discontent with the level of service among the company’s residential and business customers in Colton, regardless of cost comparisons showing the company’s trash hauling industry competitors offer their customer’s lower across-the-board rates and contrary to the advice of Colton City Manager Bill Smith, who has recommended that the franchise contract be put out to bid.
Colton Mayor Frank Navarro and Councilman Luis Gonzalez are advocating that the city carry out a competitive bid process, which independent industry analysts have indicated would save Colton’s residents and businesses anywhere from $20 million to $25 million in 2023 dollars over the ten-year course of the 2026-to-2036 life of the upcoming franchise contract. That savings would be realized through either lower service rates to be charged by whichever of the competing trash haulers that manages to obtain the contract through the bidding process or by reductions in the service charges that CR&R would be obliged to make in order to maintain the franchise.
Historically, the primary points of distinction on trash hauling franchises throughout Southern California have consisted of the rates charged to the domestic and business customers of the company granted each franchise, together with the thoroughness and quality of the service delivered. Thus, the size and financial stability of the competing companies were taken into consideration during competition for franchises, as cities wanted to ensure that a company would have staying power and would not simply dissolve, leaving that municipality with a critical sanitation dilemma. Of some moment in the awarding of franchises as well was the ability of a company to pay a franchise fee, which represented revenue augmentation to the city granting the franchise. In recent years, it has become fashionable for companies to throw in other services or make monetary provisions, such as offering to service municipal facilities for no charge, providing periodic large item pick-up service to domestic customers, extending to domestic customers free and unlimited recycling service, offering the city complimentary street sweeping or paying a municipality an annual or one-time fee to cover street repair to offset damage caused by the continual use of heavy trash trucks on city streets. The provision of these augmentary services in many cases has become a deciding factor in conferring a franchise upon a company when the quality of service otherwise and the rates charged between competitors leaves them indistinguishable from one another.
In Colton, where the franchise has now been in the hands of a single company and its corporate predecessor for 27 years and the rates charged to domestic, commercial and industrial customers remain in total substantially higher than those charged in virtually every other jurisdiction in San Bernardino County, the justification commonly given in perpetuating the franchise without subjecting it to an open public bidding process has been based upon assertions that the city had a long-established relationship with the company in question, CR&R and its corporate predecessors Republic and Taormina Industries, the augmentations to service the company offered the city with the last franchise contract extension and the CR&R’s quality of service.
All three of those grounds have been subject to harsh questioning and criticism.
Many residents and business owners have indicated they would be willing to pay a higher premium for their trash service if indeed that level of service matched the claim of excellence the company and some city officials, current and past, have made. That quality, a cross section of Colton’s customers say, is nonexistent.
Leno Moreno is well vantaged and qualified to make observations with regard to CR&R’s performance as the city’s franchised trash hauler. The owner of one of the city’s more prominent businesses, Leno’s Rico Taco, Moreno is also a landlord as the owner of an apartment complex and a homeowner. As such, he has seen the performance of CR&R from multiple perspectives.
The assertion that CR&R is offering the residents and businesses of Colton top-flight service is an absolute canard, Moreno told the Sentinel.
“There isn’t any quality,” Moreno said. “I have been fighting with CR&R about their service for a minimum of five years and I know I am not the only one.”
Moreno said that a relatively short time after CR&R acquired the Colton trash hauling operation from Republic in late 2016/early 2017, the service level dropped.
“It went from so-so under Republic to what we have now,” Moreno said. “The level of service just keeps going down. The residents and businesses in Colton don’t deserve this. We’re paying top dollar for them to give us something that is third rate. The city council knows about their performance and is about to reward them by extending their franchise contract. There is no excuse for that. When the council was asked why, what was said was, ‘We have a working relationship with them.’ That is unacceptable. This should be sent out for bid.”
CR&R is overly responsive to the city’s politicians and underresponsive to its customers, according to Moreno.
“Everyone with a commercial account in this city will tell you about multiple problems they have had,” Moreno said. “If something goes wrong and you call the company office, you get no response. You have to call City Hall, the mayor or the city manager to get something done. It shouldn’t be like that. I can give you a dozen examples.”
Moreno cited one of those, saying, “I own an apartment complex. For some reason they skipped my pick-up that week. As a result, the dumpster was overfilled and when they came the next week, the driver wouldn’t pick it up because it was too heavy. So, I called. I was told, ‘If you want us to pick it up, you’ll have to pay for another dumpster.’ I said, ‘But you didn’t make the pick-up last week. If you had made the pick up when you were supposed to, there wouldn’t be a problem. Do I get a refund for that?’ The answer to that was ‘No.’ We had to take nine bags out of the complex’s dumpster before they would make the pick-up.”
He offered another illustration.
“There is a new law – SB 1383 – that makes us recycle food scraps,” Moreno said. “It’s a state mandate. I’m not against it. At my restaurant, we run an efficient and clean operation. We have very few food scraps left over, but we have some. At one point, CR&R did not pick them up for three weeks. By that point, the odor and maggots were becoming a problem and I called. I was told there had been no pick up because they didn’t have a driver for the recycling truck. I called the mayor and then he made a call. Not ten minutes later, they came out to pick it up, but it was not a recycling truck but just a regular trash truck. Here we are, separating the organics out like we are supposed to and they just send it on to the landfill. I have photos of that if you want to see them.”
Moreno continued. “As a restaurant, we get inspected by the health department at least twice a year,” he said. “I keep my dumpster well separated, away from the restaurant operation, but as a matter of cleanliness, I want to get it steam cleaned periodically. To me it is a necessity. I called CR&R about it. They told me, ‘We don’t supply that service.’ So, I have to pay someone else to do it. I mentioned this to some city officials. The next day, they brought me a brand-new dumpster.”
Moreno related, “There are four houses next to my restaurant. I pay for the trash service for one of those tenants. That tenant’s trash bin got broken. He called CR&R to have it replaced and then got a call back. He was told, ‘That’s a Republic trash bin. We can’t replace that one. You’ve go to call Republic.’ Republic was the same company as CR&R before the takeover. CR&R is playing games with us, like it’s a joke. That tenant was using the same trash can for the last ten years. CR&R never replaced it. Why would we call Republic when CR&R has the trash franchise? I called Bill [Smith, Colton’s city manager]. I got a call an hour later from the mayor. CR&R agreed to provide three trash cans to those houses that still had Republic trash cans. Why do we have to call the mayor or the city manager every time we have a problem? Why can’t we just call the company and have them fix whatever it is, instead of them not doing what they should have done in the first place? This has been going on for six years.”
Moreno offered another example of CR&R skipping out on its responsibility to its customers.
“At one of my apartments, as they were picking up the trash, the truck hit the screening against the enclosure and knocked the gate off its hinges,” Moreno said. “A tenant called to tell me the gate was broken. I called, told them what had happened and was told it would get fixed in the next couple of days. A week went by. I called and told them, ‘One of your drivers wrecked the gate and you said you would fix it.’ The response was, ‘Well, how do you know it was our driver?’ I said, ‘My tenant saw it happen.’ The response was, ‘Who is your tenant?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to get my tenant involved.’ Then, I was told by the CR&R employee, ‘It’s my job to make sure we are not paying for something we didn’t do.’ I said, ‘It’s my job to make sure my tenants aren’t given the third degree and I’m not about to have you going back and forth with my tenant. Why don’t you ask your driver?’ I was told, ‘We asked the driver, and he denies it.’ When I get the ‘Go pound sand’ message, my policy is to call my attorney. The next day, I called my attorney. Now my attorney was involved. My attorney said, ‘Okay, we’re going to rewind the camera. We rewound the camera, and sure enough, it was the driver who hit the gate. It worked out for me because I had an attorney. But what about the small businesses in Colton who cannot afford an attorney? Paying way more for trash service or putting up with poor service is the cost of doing business in Colton. I’m not making this stuff up. These are the facts.”
Moreno said, “For our public officials to say, ‘We have a good relationship with this company,’ I say, ‘Says who?’ It seems to me like we’re talking about two different companies. Ask the city’s commercial operators. Ask residents. Look at their equipment. They have newer and better maintained trucks in Riverside and Calimesa and Loma Linda and Hemet and Pechanga. Compare them to the trucks in Colton. Ask their drivers. The ones driving on our streets are spilling hydraulic fluid. People complain. I have photos. Some of the trucks aren’t safe for their own drivers. They’ve been told, ‘We’re going to ask the state to inspect your trucks.’ They say, ‘We’re working on them.’ The other cities are getting new, natural gas-fueled trucks. Colton, basically, gets the leftovers.”
Moreno said, “I’m not a political person. By that, I mean I’m not into politics. I don’t go to council meetings very often. But it seems to me like three of the council members sold their souls to CR&R and now CR&R is calling the shots, instead of the city council. I say that wholeheartedly and with good reason. Those three are willing to extend CR&R’s contract for ten years. It’ll be just like the last time. Once they get that extension, the service will get worse. It’s not going to get better.”
There is an understory to the trash franchise circumstance.
In 1995, under then-Mayor George Fulp, Colton undertook to dissolve its sanitation division and privatize trash service, effectuating the conversion the following year.
As part of the privatization process, the city had commissioned the R.W. Beck Company, an Arizona-based firm, to conduct a request for proposals from Southern California-based trash haulers and evaluate the fitness of the applicants for taking on Colton’s trash hauling assignment. R.W. Beck returned a recommendation that Fontana-based Burrtec Industries was the most suitable of the seven applicants for the franchise.
Shortly after R.W. Beck delivered that recommendation, however, Mayor Fulp insisted upon the city council holding a closed-door meeting with R.W. Beck principal Richard Tagore-Erwin. During that closed door meeting, outside the view of the public, Fulp, along with then-councilmen Don Sanders and Abe Beltran, strong-armed Tagore-Erwin, pressuring him to alter R.W. Beck’s recommendation. After a two-week interim, during which Toarmina lobbyist Gil Lara went to work on Tagore-Erwin and the four other members of the city council, R.W. Beck delivered a second evaluation of the competition for the franchise contract, elevating its estimation of the proposal made by City of Industry-based Taormina Industries, previously ranked third in the competition, to a rough equivalency with the earlier-delivered rating of Burrtec’s qualifications. Based upon this second recommendation, Fulp, Sanders and Beltran convinced Councilwoman Deirdre Bennett to join them in supporting Taormina, whereupon Councilwoman Betty Cook and Councilman David Sandoval moved with the flow, such that by a 6-to-1 margin, with Councilman John Hutton dissenting, the city council on May 16, 1996 voted to confer the franchise contract upon Taormina.
A firestorm of controversy erupted, but shortly thereafter the dismantling of the city’s sanitation division was finalized, and Taormina assumed the status of the city’s franchised domestic trash hauler. Before the year was out, a successful recall effort against Fulp materialized and he was removed from office and replaced by Karl Gaytan.
Meanwhile, the city’s then-police chief, Bernie Lunsford, and then-city attorney, Julie Biggs, referencing irregularities that had occurred in the trash franchise contract bidding competition, persuaded the council to hire former Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Mark McDonald to carry out an investigation into the matter. Ultimately, McDonald delivered his findings, which popularly became known as the McDonald Report, which scathingly identified a rigged bidding process marred by Taormina’s provision of inducements, which McDonald characterized as “tantamount to bribes” to Fulp, Beltran and Sanders, as well as conduct on the part Fulp’s hand-picked city manager, Malik Freeman, and then-assistant city manager Daryl Parrish, which resulted in the contract being steered to Taormina despite R.W. Beck’s first straightforward determination that its proposal was inferior to that put forth by Burrtec and others.
“Taormina, with the help of Gil Lara and others, successfully exerted influence upon certain willing Colton City officials, such that Taormina had a lock on the contract before the bid process ever began,” according to the McDonald Report.
McDonald stated in the report that Parrish acknowledged he recognized rigging the awarding of the contract in such a way that the franchise was given to a company that had been outperformed by two of its competitors was highly improper but that he had gone along with what had been done because he had “mouths to feed” and could not afford to lose his job.
The first direct casualty of the McDonald Report was Freeman, who was terminated by the council in an effort to stem the public outrage based upon the report’s narrative describing him as taking an active role in carrying out Fulp, Beltran and Sanders’ bidding in vectoring the contract to Taormina. Parrish, whose transgressions in the matter were acts of omission rather than commission, was suspended but not terminated. The report, which was provided to the FBI, resulted in investigations into the political situation in Colton and reports of graft, bribery and payoffs at City Hall. Beltran, who had been prosecuted by the district attorney’s office in 1996 and voted out of office at the time that Fulp was recalled, was implicated in criminal activity and acts of political corruption tracked by the FBI, as was Sanders and eventually, Fulp’s successor as mayor, Karl Gaytan. Fulp, who departed from California shortly after his political career in Colton ended, was not prosecuted, although there were hints, never confirmed, that he had begun cooperating with the FBI. The FBI assembled criminal cases against Beltran, Sanders, Gaytan and another Colton councilman, James Grimsby, who came into office in a recall election against Sandoval in 1997 and in short order began tapping into the cycle of graft that ultimately felled Beltran, Sanders and Gaytan. All were convicted and forced to leave office.
While the focus of the McDonald Report and portions of the FBI investigation included the illicit inducements to Fulp, Sanders and Beltran that led to Taormina’s success in achieving the trash hauling franchise in Colton, no prosecutorial authority charged Taormina or its officials with a crime. A Colton community activist, the Reverend Steve Anderson, lobbed charges that the company had used “mob tactics,” including bribery and intimidation, in obtaining the franchise contract. Taormina filed legal action against Anderson, which ultimately served to ward off any further public outcry over the circumstances that had led to the awarding of the franchise contract to Taormina.
Because of the constant need for trash refuse handling and the consideration that Taormina had a lock on the franchise, early talk about rescinding the council’s vote that conferred the franchise on Taormina ended and no serious effort was ever made by the council to rebid the contract. Eventually, owners William and Vincent Taormina agreed to merge Taormina Industries Inc. with Republic Industries, Inc. in exchange for 6.5 million shares of Republic stock, which was then valued at $250 million. Republic Industries is the second largest non-hazardous solid waste management company in the United States after Waste Management, Inc.
In 2005, with the ten-year anniversary of the trash franchise approaching, Republic was able to coax then-Mayor Deirdre Bennett, one of Fulp’s protégés, and a majority of the city council, consisting at that point of Councilman Ramon Hernandez, Councilman Richard DeLaRosa, Councilwoman Kelly Chastain, Councilwoman Helen Ramos, Councilman John Mitchell, and Councilman Isaac Suchil, out of considering conducting an open bid process on the city’s refuse-handling arrangement. This was effectuated, in large measure through generosity in endowing the city leaders’ respective campaign funds.
By 2014, Republic Industries and its corporate predecessor had held the Colton trash-hauling franchise contract, serving essentially as the city of Colton’s privatized sanitation division, for 18 years.
With the franchise due to elapse in 2016, the concept of putting the franchise out to bid surfaced in that year’s election. Frank Gonzales, Colton’s longtime mayor who had been defeated by Fulp in the 1994 election, had made a comeback as a city official in 2010, when he was elected to the city council. Four years later, in 2014, he again sought election as mayor, facing Richard DeLaRosa, who had left the council in 2010 after he had served two terms. During his campaign, Gonzales sought to make an issue of the city’s automatic renewal of the trash franchise. He called for putting out a request for proposals to as many regional trash hauling companies as the city could, to effectuate a competitive bid process for the refuse hauling contract. Consequently, Republic Industries threw its support behind DeLaRosa. Simultaneously, in August 2014, Republic Industries pledged a $40,000 donation to the city to secure an exclusive opportunity to open negotiations with the city on the extension of the franchise contract. At the behest of Public Works Director Amer Jakher, who at that point had been elevated into the position of acting city manager, the city council accepted the money, with most council members stating that the city could still go out to bid if the negotiations with the company did not succeed.
In November of that year, Gonzales lost the 2014 election to DeLaRosa.
In the immediate aftermath of his election victory, DeLaRosa began pressing the city council to bypass any sort of competitive bid process as the council began a progression toward addressing the 2016 expiration of the trash hauling franchise contract.
In rejecting the opportunity to compare bids upfront, Colton put Jakher into a weak bargaining position. Other companies were prepared to offer Colton terms that substantially bettered anything Republic put on the table. Representatives of other companies told the Sentinel they were anxious to bid on the Colton contract and that they were aware of the terms under discussion in Colton and were prepared to provide better service at lower cost than Republic had committed to. They also said they made this clear to Colton officials.
Among those companies were Waste Management, Burrtec Industries and Athens Services. In 2013, Athens had succeeded, as the prevailing party in an open public bidding process, in displacing Burrtec as the operator of the County of San Bernardino’s landfills. Athens was particularly interested in establishing service areas in San Bernardino County and was prepared to underbid and outservice Republic to the point that it would have been willing to operate at a thin margin above cost to achieve the Colton contract. Burrtec, having lost the county landfill operation contract, was intent on maintaining its position as the county’s most prolific trash hauler and preventing Athens from getting any more of a toehold in San Bernardino County than it already had. Colton never entertained any overtures from companies other than Republic.
Previously, refuse from Colton had been deposited into a landfill within Colton and the city received a host “tipping fee” from San Bernardino County, which owned the landfill, for accepting trash into the landfill within its borders. But the county shuttered the Colton landfill, ending that revenue stream to the city. In 2012, as Republic was looking ahead to ensure that it kept its Colton contract, the company offered to provide Colton $140,000 per year to replace the lost tipping fees from the Colton landfill closure. In addition, it offered to forego annual consumer price index increases for the last three years of the contract. This offer was predicated on Colton allowing Republic to haul the trash to its own landfill in Brea, which provided Republic with substantial savings over having to pay tipping fees to another entity. At that time, the council rejected Republic’s offer and decided to continue Colton’s waste disposal agreement with San Bernardino County, resulting in the trash being taken to the county’s Mid-Valley Landfill.
From the time the Colton City Council voted against Republic’s 2012 offer until 2015, Colton ratepayers experienced three separate Consumer Price Index increases, including a 4.25 percent increase in 2014. Inexplicably, in its 2015 negotiations with Jakher, Republic kept the Consumer Price Index rate hikes totaling almost 8 percent while convincing the city to allow Republic to take the trash to its preferred landfill in Brea.
In its negotiations with Republic, Colton also lost $140,000 in yearly waste disposal fees, which Colton had been receiving from the county. This money was provided as a consequence of the county’s waste disposal agreement with 14 of the cities in the county that use county landfills. For using the county’s landfills, those cities are given a discounted rate less than the gate fee haulers bringing trash in from outside the county are required to pay. The difference between the regular gate fee and the negotiated waste disposal agreement rate is referred to as the waste disposal agreement rebate. While some cities in the county receive the entire waste disposal agreement rebate, the arrangement arrived at between Colton and Republic in 2015 provided Colton with only $4.24 of the $8.19 per ton rebate when Colton trash was reposited into a county landfill, and Republic kept the rest. Moreover, the contract extension has allowed Republic to divert Colton’s trash to a landfill operated by Republic, depriving Colton of the $140,000 rebate altogether.
Ultimately, pursuant to the 2015 agreement, Republic offered, and Jakher and the city council accepted, an offer which provided Colton with $210,000 for “street sweeping” and $80,000 for “tree trimming” as well as another $30,000 per year in “host city” fees, along with a small increase in the administrative fee, estimated at between $15,000 and $20,000 yearly that Colton has received for handling residential billing for Republic within the confines of Colton. Republic further agreed to return five percent of its revenue – quantified at roughly $360,000 in 2015 dollars– to the city for street repairs to make up for the damage caused by its trash trucks.
In July 2015, Mayor DeLaRosa, Councilman David Toro and councilwomen Deirdre Bennett and Summer Jorrin voted to extend the trash hauling franchise agreement with Republic Industries for ten years, into 2026, with councilmen Frank Navarro, Isaac Suchil and Luis Gonzalez (no blood relation to Frank Gonzales) dissenting.
Comparisons with deals closed elsewhere showed the degree to which Jakher and the city had been outnegotiated. In Fullerton, for example, customers were paying 78 percent of what customers in Colton were paying per month for trash service. In Cypress, where the city invited proposals from trash companies, five companies bid on the project and the end result was that homeowners there, in 2015, paid $12.97 monthly for collections, or 54.5 percent of the $23.79 monthly for weekly trash pick-up Colton residents were paying in 2015 for the same service.
In reality, the one-time $540,000 Republic offered to return to Colton in the form of street sweeping, tree trimming service, road repair and host fees was dwarfed by what other cities obtained in exchange for their trash franchises. Athens paid West Covina $2 million plus $100,000 in additional yearly community contributions for an additional 25-year extension. In Covina, Athens paid $2 million plus a $200,000 annual contribution for a 20-year deal. In Chino Hills, where residents in 2015 paid a $17.38 per month rate to Republic for trash service compared to the $23.79 residents in Colton paid, the residential rates were guaranteed to escalate to not more than $21.59 by the end of the contract in 2021. In 2010 Republic paid the city of Chino Hills $500,000 to lock in that contract for an additional five years, even though that extension wasn’t scheduled to begin until 2016.
Colton missed the boat with the deal it closed with Republic in 2015 in another way, as well. It was known at that time that Republic was in separate negotiations with CR&R, Inc. for the sale of its Colton operations. This rendered Republic into a very vulnerable and delicate position in its negotiations with Colton, in that if it did not maintain the Colton franchise, it would have nothing to sell to CR&R. Thus, Colton could have pressed for a host of concessions from Republic, such as reductions in the rates to be paid by either or both domestic and commercial/industrial customers or a limitation on the per year maximum percentage increase in those rates over the life of the contract. The city could have also, had it chosen to do so, insisted upon an ownership transfer clause in the contract that would have required a one-time payment of anywhere from, for example, $100,000 to $500,000 to $1 million, if Republic were to sell off its Colton operation. Despite that opportunity, neither Jackher nor the mayor and city council insisted on any of those provisions or similar ones being put into the contract.
Even more notably, Jackher and the mayor and council failed to ask for what Frank Gonzales had suggested during his 2014 mayoral run, which was a million dollars in an upfront franchise fee and another $250,000 per year more in pass-through franchise revenues going forward.
In the summer of 2015, after the deal with Republic was finalized, Mayor DeLaRosa was confronted about the less than resolute fashion in which his administration had negotiated on behalf of the city and its ratepayers, which provoked a curious response in which he sought to justify the terms of the agreement to extend the franchise contract while suggesting that its less-than-ideal terms were a product of the previous mayoral administration of Sarah Zamora, under whom the negotiations with Republic had been initiated.
“The prior council had acted to start the negotiations with the current hauler and that put us in the position where we had to negotiate with the current hauler first,” he said, disregarding that the city had made no commitment to arrive at an agreement during those negotiations. Nevertheless, he insisted, “From the dais, we on the council did our best. We did our due diligence. Over the more than a year it took to negotiate this contract, including right up to the very last meeting where we approved it, we told them [Republic] we wanted more. We asked for changes several times, for them to put different things on the table. I don’t know how much more you can negotiate or who else you can put in place to negotiate beside the city manager and the public works director. Those two people were in place. It is hard to say whether by being more hardnosed we would have gotten more. Everything the council asked for they gave us. There is no concrete or tangible number we can look at to compare what we could have gotten. We could have gotten a better rate. We could have gotten a worst rate. It goes both ways. I believe we kept the rates low.”
DeLaRosa in 2015 said Colton had not responded to overtures from other trash hauling companies offering rates and terms that were more favorable than those provided by Republic in large measure because “The tone of these negotiations was set last year prior to me being on the council. The agreement was we would not enter into negotiations with other companies while we were considering contract proposals from Republic. We could not hold formal discussions with other companies because we had an agreement to look at the current hauler first. We could not formally look at any other numbers. The previous council accepted that in 2013 and 2014.”
Asked if he considered going three decades without a bid process wise, DeLaRosa said, “At least four of us on the council felt there was not a need to go out for a request for proposals because they met what our expectations were. What we asked for is what we got, including host fees and money coming in for other purposes. I don’t regret the decision.”
In the years since, however, DeLaRosa’s perspective may have changed, as the terms contained in the city’s trash hauling franchise contract – ones that are tangibly and demonstrably inferior to those contained in virtually all such contracts among municipalities in San Bernardino County and Southern California – are widely considered to be a black mark upon him and his mayoral administration. By the early spring of 2017, Republic Industries had sold its Colton operation – lock, stock and barrel – to CR&R, Inc. In very short order, ratepayers throughout the city, including domestic and business customers, noted a diminution in the quality of service. The perception was that DeLaRosa was primarily responsible for the state of affairs as many recognized he had come into office with the support of Republic Industries, and that he had then refused to utilize his gravitas and authority as mayor to insist on a competitive bidding process on the refuse handling franchise, resulting in Republic retaining the contract and then rapidly moving to sell its Colton assets and operation at a tremendous profit.
In 2018, amid suggestions that he had sold his constituents out in return for the assistance from Republic that enabled him to defeat Frank Gonzales in 2014 and that his vote on the city council in 2005 to extend Republic’s franchise contract was equally suspect, DeLaRosa opted out of seeking reelection as mayor, stating he was departing “to make way for new visions.”
CR&R’s corporate officers have sought to cultivate close and supportive relationships with Colton’s mayor and members of the city council, just as the two companies that owned the Colton trash hauling franchise from its inception and sold it in packaged deals that leaves the contract in the hands of CR&R as the successor of the original enterprise consistently did. Those efforts have followed a formula of making generous donations to those politicians’ electioneering funds and providing other forms of assistance in outreach to the community, including but not limited to making charitable donations to and funding or sponsoring community improvement efforts those officials have associated themselves with. As the McDonald Report documented, that generosity has not always confined itself to the bounds of propriety and the law, sending members of the Colton City Council, a generation ago, to federal prison.
At present, CR&R is seeking to preemptively preclude any discussion of an open bid process for Colton’s trash franchise taking place as applies to the decade after the current contract expires in 2026. Corporate officials are hoping they can do so by having the current city council, which was reduced from seven to five members last year, quietly undertake a consideration of the contract extension and, with as little warning to Colton’s residents as possible, hold a brief public hearing and conduct a vote to extend the franchise contract until 2036, effectively allowing Taormina and its corporate successors Republic and CR&R, to monopolize the city’s trash franchise for 40 years without any open competitive bid process beyond the original one, tainted by the graft that took place in 1996.
Mayor Frank Navarro and Councilman Luis Gonzalez, who as members of the city council in 2015 sought to have the city engage in an open bid competition for the ongoing current franchise contract running from 2016 to 2026, remain committed to the same principle for the franchise that is anticipated to be in place from 2026 until 2036. Two of the other current members of the city council – Kelly Chastain and John Echevarria – have given firm and fast indication that they support simply rolling the CR&R’s franchise contract over. The other member of the council, David Toro, appears to be leaning in favor of CR&R, as well.
There are varying perspectives on what is motivating Chastain, Echevarria and Toro to once again dispense with an open bid process, some of which are more or less charitable than others.
To some residents, the willingness of the trio to give CR&R the benefit of the doubt is a reflection of a “hail fellow well met” attitude on the part of those who are members of the local social and political establishment. That CR&R and its corporate predecessors have remained in place, practically as a Colton institution, is a reason to embrace the company rather than reject it, many believe. In this view, CR&R is a known quantity that has proven itself as a participant in the community, and there is nothing suspect about the congeniality that exists between a company that has taken on the role of what once was a municipal division and the officials who represent the residents at City Hall in their callings as council members. In their capacities as city leaders, their supporters say, Chastain, Echevarria and Toro are privy to information and confidences relating to the negotiating process that leave them in a better position than others to know what is best for the city, and it should be taken as an article of faith that they will do what is right by the citizens who have put them in office.
Others, however, are extremely skeptical about any assertions that the city ended up on the good side of the deals with Taormina, Republic and CR&R in the past and are equally jaundiced against the prospect of the city and its residents doing well in the future. Some of those, while stopping well short of questioning Chastain’s, Echevarria’s and Toro’s honesty or integrity, say the three are proving or have already proven themselves to be hopelessly naive and unequal to the task of dealing with a sophisticated entity driven by the profit motive. Others, still, point to the outright violations of the public trust that occurred previously in Colton with regard to the highly lucrative trash hauling franchise and find the way in which Chastain, Echevarria and Toro are comporting themselves to be highly suspect, indicating that they have been compromised.
Those in the latter camp point to the consideration that all three have, or should have, either experience, training, gravitas or a combination thereof that should preclude them from allowing the franchise to be rolled over without it being subject to an open public bidding process.
In the case of Chastain, who was first elected to the city council in 1996 when she defeated Councilman Beltran, she was a member of the city council in 1997 which not only hired McDonald to carry out his investigation but was a member of the council to whom the McDonald Report was delivered. Nor is this Chastain’s first go-round with the trash franchise extension. She was, as well, a member of the city council that in 2005 allowed the Taormina/Republic franchise contract for 2006 through 2016 to be rolled over. After being elected mayor in 2006, she was defeated for reelection to that post in 2010 and did not return to the city council until 2022. She thus did not participate in the 2015 vote to extend Republic’s franchise in 2015. Chastain is acutely aware that by extending the franchise contract at this point, the franchise will, by 2036, have been perpetrated for four decades without having been subject to a competitive bid. Taormina and Republic were major contributors to Chastain’s electioneering fund during her time as councilwoman and mayor. At the September 18 Colton City Council meeting, Chastain made a motion to extend the CR&R trash hauling franchise from 2026 until 2036. Councilman Echevarria seconded the motion, but it failed by a 2-to-3 vote, with Councilmen Toro and Gonzalez and Mayor Navarro in opposition. Toro then made a motion to have the city council conduct a public workshop to go over the proposal to extend the franchise contract without conducting a public bidding process. That passed on a 3-to-2 vote, with Chastain, Echevarria and Toro prevailing. That workshop is to be held on November 1.
Toro was first elected to the city council in 2006. He thus missed participating in the 2005 vote to roll over the Taormina/Republic franchise. He was, however, on the council in 2015 when the franchise was then approaching its 20th anniversary and the city council, led by DeLaRosa, voted 4-to-3 to ratify perpetrating Republic’s franchise, with his vote in favor of doing so key to the rollover taking place by a bare one-vote majority. He remained on the council thereafter, having been returned to office in what was then the city’s 2nd District without any opposition in 2018 and again being elected to the newly formed and consolidated 1st District without opposition last year. Toro cannot have missed the obloquy to which DeLaRosa, as Colton’s mayor who presided over the negotiations with Republic that resulted in the rollover without any open public bidding process, was subjected to or the similar criticisms against himself that were made because of his vote in support of the rollover. Republic was one of Toro’s major political donors. His defenders have expressed the view that he is guileless, simple and a bit on the naive side and that his lack of focus should not be mistaken for an indication that he would allow money he had been provided by CR&R or its corporate predecessor to influence his vote. Others, however, have said that the way in which he tolerated the 2014/2015 negotiations with CR&R which allowed the ownership of that company to enrich itself at the expense of the city and the constituents he represents bring into question the claim he lacks sophistication and has inexorably driven them to the conclusion that he has been greased. His apparent willingness now to accept an inferior franchise service proposal without testing that proposal against competitive bids for that franchise contract cannot be reasonably interpreted in any way other than that he is shilling for CR&R, they say.
Echevarria, who has been in office since 2020, had no previous experience, as did Chastain and Toro, in considering a continuation of the trash franchise. Nevertheless, he arguably possesses an equal or even greater degree of sophistication with regard to public agency operations, given his possession of a master’s degree in public administration, his current status as a lieutenant with the San Bernardino Police Department and his previous tenure as a detective with that department. CR&R has been one of the major donors to his political war chest.
As was asserted by Toro’s defenders, some Colton residents and business owners who spoke with the Sentinel said it is difficult to believe Echevarria would engage in accepting a gratuity/quid pro quo/kickback/bribe in exchange for his support of an action antithetical to the interests of his constituents. By the same token, others expressed befuddlement at how a high-ranking police officer who had worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant and possesses a degree in public administration, someone of Echevarria’s obvious intelligence and gravitas, is willing to accept an inferior franchise service proposal without testing it against competitive bids. Others, ones who have a very close vantage on the operations of CR&R, suggested that there were no monetary considerations involved in Echevarria’s show of favoritism toward CR&R but that rather that he was willing to cut the company a break because of his close personal relationship with Belen Cordero, the CR&R sustainability specialist who works out of the company’s Colton office.
This week, the Sentinel sent separate emails to Chastain, Toro and Echevarria, seeking from them what they had heard from Colton residents and business owners with regard to complaints about CR&R’s service, why they were opposed to carrying out an open public bid process on the Colton trash franchise from 2026 until 2036 and what they thought the city has to lose by conducting an open public bid process on the upcoming Colton trash franchise from 2026 until 2036 as well as what advantage to the City of Colton and its ratepayers they perceived in not conducting an open public bidding process. The Sentinel further sought from Chastain, Toro and Echevarria whether they had attempted to ascertain what other trash haulers would be interested in participating in an open bidding process and if they had looked into what other trash haulers with franchise contracts among other cities in San Bernardino County are charging their customers for trash service and the quality of service those companies provide.
The Sentinel further asked Chastain and Toro to disclose if there is something inherent in the issue of the city’s trash franchise of which they are aware and that others in the Colton community are missing which explains why it will be better to allow CR&R and its corporate predecessors to maintain for four decades an exclusive ability to deliver a vital service without having to compete against others who might be able to do so at less cost and with greater diligence.
Neither Chastain nor Toro responded to those inquiries. Echevarria, in a previous response to the Sentinel, referred all questions about the matter relating to the trash franchise to the city’s spokeswoman, Debra Farrar. Farrar did not return any of several calls left with the city.
By Mark Gutglueck