My View: Public Participation, the Homeless and DWR’s Profits

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scavenging-lawI was dismayed on Tuesday to watch the unfolding of the discussion on scavenging.  It was a brilliant presentation by Dianna Jensen – it was just, in my view, the wrong presentation and the wrong discussion.

I am going to make a series of otherwise unrelated points that I think relates to this discussion.

The first point is that whenever a law is objected to there seems to be a response that the alternative to the law is looking the other way.  That is not the case here.  I am not advocating we look the other way at crime, I’m suggesting that the law that we have passed at first reading does not seem to address the problem that the council and staff laid out.

The policy that we laid out was assessing an increasing level of fines for individuals caught scavenging in trash and recycle bins.  The city is concerned about organized groups that come from out of town, using trucks and crews of people, and who seem to be creating their own illegal business.

In addition to the nuisance, the city expressed concerns about identity theft – scavengers sorting through mail and prescription pill bottles in recycling carts.

This was described as organized crime, but it begs the question, why would you try to deal with sophisticated organized crime with fines?

In a discussion I had with one councilmember, I was told, “We cannot openly advocate for our police to look the other way on the dais.”  They believe that this is a step forward, that the police can simply issue a warning to members of the homeless community who are not part of the organized efforts.

“We are not systematically arresting and citing these folks with the bags of cans under the current law who are clearly in need and not professionally gleaning our neighborhoods for profits. Why would we start now?” I was told.

But that’s not what we were told the in the staff report, which argues that the current municipal code “does not include adequate enforcement or penalty clause provisions.”

The problem is that the law doesn’t make the distinction that council and staff made.  History suggests that council intentions are rarely remembered down the line; in fact, one of our complaints over the years is that the destruction of video and other records means that no one can even go back and ascertain what the council intention was.

Moreover, if the intent of the law is to deal with the problem of organized groups that go in and scavenge, perhaps the code might want to reflect that.  I would argue the penalties are not sufficient to discourage these groups.  Moreover, we do not have to have the police look the other way; we simple establish a threshold for the ordinance to kick in that exceeds what an individual with a shopping cart or bike could carry.

In a lot of ways this is really about the profit margin for DWR.  As Dianna Jensen noted in her staff report, we are seeing a marked reduction in aluminum and plastics.  She notes, “Decreased recycling revenue to DWR means higher costs to city and customers.”

Scavenging has been on the rise since 2007 due to the bad economy and increased CRV value.  But that ignores a possible alternative explanation for the decrease in revenue for DWR – that more customers are keeping their recyclables and turning them in themselves.

So for instance, I have a notorious Diet Coke habit and I consume large numbers of cans.  Instead of laying them on the curbside and allowing DWR to get our profit, we turn them in ourselves and reinvest in my next dose.

How do we know that some of the profit loss for DWR isn’t the result of other community members making the same decision?  Again, I’m not saying that scavenging isn’t a contributing factor, but it may not be the only contributing factor.

One question I think we need to ask is whether the city should be contracting with a private, for-profit corporation to deal with recycling.  I am troubled that our policies should be directed toward making sure that DWR is profitable.

Finally we get to the issue of public participation.  Councilmembers and city officials might have been caught off guard by the volume of comments the articles this past week generated.  If you count Robb Davis’ more general article inspired by this issue, the three articles generated well over 200 comments.

On the other hand, a councilmember remarked to me, “I also find it disheartening that some other critics did not come to public comment.”

It is not that there was any sort of unanimity on the Vanguard comments, but that’s the point – the concern leveled by the public in the comments was largely ignored by public officials during their discussion.

The city has been actively looking at ways to better engage the public and one of the things they need to start to understand is that more and more the discussions on critical issues will take place outside of the dais.

We have argued here that many members of the public do not have time to come down to make public comment or to come to council chambers, but they should have ways to participate in the process.

That leads me to address another issue that I hear on here and in the community.  The Vanguard is just a blog, so why should it be taken seriously?  Alternatively is the notion that no one reads the Vanguard.

To pull an illustration, on Wednesday, the Vanguard drew nearly 6000 unique visitors.  We have over 24,000 visits that day.  Neither of these numbers were close to records for the site.

The first month of this new site, which has new and improved readership metrics, we drew 60,000 unique visitors and over 600,000 visits.  Those numbers are probably understated because they include the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s where readership, while remaining robust, fell off from other weeks during the year.

The Vanguard is no longer just David Greenwald’s blog, where I pour out my thoughts from my living room couch.  It is a site that a lot of people read.  We have a non-profit board, an editorial board, and the Vanguard Court Watch Council.

There are fifty people on a regular basis involved in the running of this site.  And it is a site that is well read in the community and in the surrounding areas.

The council cannot ignore the voices of those in the community concerned about the impact of this policy on the less fortunate people.  I think Rob White last week raised important points about how the city can incorporate new forms of participation with old, but, at least with the readership of the Vanguard, this seems to be an issue that we need to re-think.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 thoughts on “My View: Public Participation, the Homeless and DWR’s Profits”

  1. Tia Will

    David

    I agree with your statement that perhaps we should revisit the details of this ordinance. I would favor your proposal to redraft the law to target the larger scale “business” scavengers as opposed to those who are scavenging to survive for two main reasons. First, to fine or cite someone who has no means to pay undermines the validity of the law and is basically a waste of police time and effort and as such amounts only to harassment.

    My second objection is to the use of the City Council to protect the proceeds of a private company when other alternatives are available. What we have basically done is to grant DWR a monopoly on collection of reusable discards within our community. The “mom and pop” scavengers are demonstrating initiative and effort to survive. They are not lazy. They are not begging. I think they are in part, simply an unwelcome reminder to some of the harsh realities of our society for those who have not managed to succeed materially and that this may be one way of trying to force them to move on without saying so.

    1. B. Nice

      “My second objection is to the use of the City Council to protect the proceeds of a private company when other alternatives are available.”

      I think they would argue that protecting DWR’s proceeds directly benefits Davis residents because it keeps the costs of collection down.

      That being said I’m not convinced that mom and pop scavenger really have any effect on DWR’s profit margin, and I think council feels the same way. A more relevant question may be how the police see it, and how they will choose to enforce it.

    2. hpierce

      Actually, I think begging is more honest… people choose to contibute. Unlike scavaging from recycling containers… if that results in higher costs to the customer, that is an involuntary contribution.

  2. 2cowherd

    I agree with The Vanguard and with Tia Will. As I read this article I wondered why DWR wasn’t asked to be responsible for protecting their loss. Perhaps I don’t understand the contractual agreement between the City and DWR – but I also can’t see how the Police Dept has the time or staff to solve this problem.

    1. B. Nice

      “As I read this article I wondered why DWR wasn’t asked to be responsible for protecting their loss.”

      They have taken measures at their facility to protect their loss. I’m not sure what steps they could take to keep people from savaging bins on the sidewalk.

  3. B. Nice

    “One question I think we need to ask is whether the city should be contracting with a private, for-profit corporation to deal with recycling. I am troubled that our policies should be directed toward making sure that DWR is profitable.”

    I want to look as this question out of the context of this piece. From a conservation stand point I think a legitimate argument can be made that we want recycling companies to be profitable. As long as they can and are doing it in a socially responsible way I don’t problem with it, and in theory I support the idea.

    1. David Greenwald

      I want to make it clear, I’m simply asking the question and hoping to learn more. But what if we had a local nonprofit instead of for profit running the recycling program, how would that impact cost considerations?

        1. B. Nice

          They say that there is no charge to the residents for recycling collection because the program pays for itself. For some reason I interpreted this as it just covered their cost, but they may indeed be profiting off it. But of coarse those profits could offset other expenses, thus lowering trash collection fees. Again I’d be curious to see their books.

  4. SouthofDavis

    Tia wrote:

    > First, to fine or cite someone who has no means to pay undermines
    > the validity of the law and is basically a waste of police time and effort
    > and as such amounts only to harassment.

    Reading this it sounds like Tia thinks making the poor pay a fine for “anything” is “harassment”.

    Looking at the way people in town want to deal with the homeless problem is a lot like looking at the way people in town raise their kids. Most (but not all) of my far left of center friends let their kids “run wild” and don’t want to “hurt their creativity” by asking them to follow rules like going to bed or cleaning their rooms. Most (but not all) of my far right of center friends come down on their kids like drill sergeants to try and get them to “conform” and they have a schedule and rooms that make Marines in boot camp feel sorry for them.

    I hope I don’t get in trouble from the PC police by comparing the homeless to kids (since both need help to make better choices in their life). I don’t think that many feel that having people digging through recycle bins in town to get money for drugs and booze (that they smoke and drink in the park) is a great thing. I’m not a super right winger, but if you keep “looking the other way” when the homeless break laws it is like “looking the other way” when your kids break rules (like not doing homework and smoking pot in their room). In both cases looking the other way is not good for anyone.

    We don’t want to come down with an iron fist like most right wingers (who still hit their kids) but try and work with the homeless people breaking the rules to find behaviors that follow the law and will make life better for everyone.

    1. Tia Will

      I am in no way suggesting that “the poor” should not have to pay fines “for anything”. I think that my attitude towards scavenging may be in part informed by my experiences growing up in rural Washington. From when I was around nine until we left Washington when I was 16, I used to make money for school clothes and supplies by picking blackberries and huckleberries growing “along side the road” and therefore in the public domain as well as sometimes probably veering onto private property unintentionally since boundaries were not always clearly demarcated at the time. Were these “my berries” to pick and sell at the local market. No. Was I stealing ? No, but why not since I was clearly picking berries that would have been free to others had I not picked them ? Because our community had chosen not to define it as a crime for poor kids to earn a little spare cash through their own initiative. We choose what to make against the law. I simply think that in this case, we probably have better choices of what to criminalize.

  5. SouthofDavis

    2cowherd wrote:

    > I wondered why DWR wasn’t asked to be responsible for protecting their loss.

    If a Davis resident calls the police after they see a homeless guy riding away on a bike they just stole from the residents garage should the police tell the resident tough luck, you “should have been responsible for protecting your loss”?

    1. B. Nice

      “If a Davis resident calls the police after they see a homeless guy riding away on a bike they just stole from the residents garage should the police tell the resident tough luck, you “should have been responsible for protecting your loss”?

      They actually did tell me that when my bike was stolen, apparently it was my fault for using a lock that was too easy to cut through. (They did file a police report though, and I got the bike back year later).

    2. Mr. Toad

      Entry into a structure for theft or any other felony is burglary in California. If the police won’t address burglary there is something seriously wrong with our law enforcement. People keep trying to equate theft of some cans on the street with burglary from a garage. They represent two different types of events both from a legal and public safety standpoint.

  6. Homegrown

    Stealing is stealing ,if you don’t want to give to dwr then leave out for the homeless to pick up.We as citizens have made a deal with dwr and when we put their tote out it is theirs now.I for one don’t want them sending out trucks to pick up things if they are going to be empty.

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