San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said he will release a legal argument Friday that would clear the way for the city to privatize trash collection, allowing it to recoup the $34 million it loses annually on residential trash collection without directly repealing the city’s longstanding ban on trash fees.

The city “would essentially get out of the trash hauling business, selling the business as a going concern and leave trash hauling to the private sector,” Goldsmith said. “The city would not provide trash services to anybody.”

A 90-year-old city law known as “The People’s Ordinance” prohibits the city from charging trash collection fees for single-family homes.

Overturning that ordinance — and instituting a trash tax — is one of the proposals most frequently floated to help solve the city’s financial crisis.

It’s unclear, then, if residents would just be left on their own to cover trash hauling or if they’d be forced to pay whatever company wins the privatization bid. Full details, Goldsmith said, would come Friday but the move would likely require voter approval.

Goldsmith’s proposal comes as Mayor Jerry Sanders pulled out of a comprehensive financial reform effort this week following opposition from an anti-tax coalition. Sanders publicly has discussed privatizing the city’s landfill at Miramar.

City leaders face an Aug. 6 deadline to place propositions on November’s ballot. Sanders has a self-imposed June 2011 deadline to develop a plan that would end the city’s persistent budget deficits. The city has faced a deficit every year since 2003. Next year’s gap now is estimated at $73 million, though many believe it could be as high as $90 million.

City Hall sources this week said Goldsmith was lobbying council offices to gain support for his idea. Goldsmith declined to say which council members he discussed his plan with, but said open meetings laws require him to meet with no more than four council members. Further, he said, he wasn’t advocating for a plan but rather informing council members about legally possible options.

“Working the floor, if I’m going to give input I have to sometimes explain it,” he said.

City Councilman Todd Gloria, the council’s most frequent proponent of new revenues, said Goldsmith hadn’t talked to him. But Gloria expressed interest if the plan made trash fees more equitable and improved conservation and services.

“I’ve been clear that I think we have to reconsider the People’s Ordinance,” Gloria said.

A mayoral spokeswoman said the Mayor’s Office was aware Goldsmith was exploring this option, but did not respond to a request to discuss the proposal.

Goldsmith said he wasn’t sure if he would have released his plan if city leaders still were discussing Sanders’ package. But with that proposal dead, he wanted to give decision makers a reform option in advance of the Aug. 6 ballot deadline. Still, the short timeframe makes it unlikely council would endorse the plan, Goldsmith said.

“There’s a void right now from the standpoint of considerations,” he said. “There’s still an opportunity if they want to put it on the ballot. It would be a long shot because they would have to act really, really quickly on a complicated matter.”

City Hall observers said the recent flurry of reform proposals reflected an urgency felt by city politicians surrounding the city’s fiscal problems.

Andrew Berg, the leader of the local branch of the National Electrical Contractors Association, said leaders are realizing the economy won’t bail the city out of its problems and they’re hearing from constituents tired of potholes and cuts to public safety.

“I think hope always springs eternal until there’s no more time,” Berg said.


Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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