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Council and public object to a 6% increase for trash pick-up

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer

In order to properly commemorate the first day of summer, which is the longest day of the year, the Ridgecrest City Council held its longest meeting, lasting well over three hours. Besides its length, this June 21 meeting also contained thematic elements from the 1962 film, The Longest Day. Similar scenes from this epic war movie were displayed in that night’s meeting. There were demonstrations of personal sacrifice, threats of invasion, displays of bravery while facing opposition, lively battles, and plenty of colorful characters. However, due to budget restrictions, some features had to be omitted, such as amphibious landings and paratroopers dropping out of the sky.

Personal Sacrifice was the subject Joe David emphasized during the “Public Comment” section. These sacrifices are asked of the six tow yards in town. He said any time an abandoned RV needs to be picked up and towed away, sacrifices are asked to be made of these local yards. By rotation, they are routinely called by either the California Highway Patrol or the Ridgecrest Police Department. David, who works for Sierra Auto Recycling, spoke up because he “wants to find a solution to get rid of these in a proper manner cost-effectively.” Any of these yards that tow these RVs incur an “extreme cost and loss.” They take up three times the space as a car parked in their yard, they are usually not insured, and they almost always contain hazardous waste, such as sewage, oil, and even asbestos, in the older vehicles. He addressed the council members in search of a better solution because he “wants to see the city clean.”

Threats of invasion were prevalent in this meeting. It first came up in the public comments by Mike Sinnott, who brought up Placer.ai, a controversial item that was slated to be included in the upcoming budget vote. Sinnott called this data-gathering company “the eye in the sky” and saw it as an invasion of privacy to the people of Ridgecrest. He described this technology as a “big pot of data” that “accumulates information about every single person” and then “combines that data with a GPS tracking system.” He said this” fearful” technology is like a “digital gulag.” He ended his five minutes with a stern warning: “Do not implement this technology, Placer.ai!”

Typically, the “Consent Calendar” contains benign items routinely agreed upon by the council, with a vote of “yay” or “nay.” But, during this particular meeting, Council Member Hayman spoke up against the seeming consensus of the other council members, the mayor, and the city manager. When asked for a vote for five items to be agreed upon, Hayman asked that the third item, which was the proposed action to adopt the “Annual Budget for Fiscal Year 2023-24,” be “pulled.”

Consistent with his prior reservations about implementing license plate readers (LPRs) and Placer.ai upon the citizens, Hayman said he would like these two items removed from the budget and brought back as agenda items and acted upon independently. He asked that the LPR, costing the city $70,000, and Placer.ai, costing $19,000, be set aside in order to be evaluated and discussed with the public. He said he had polled “numerous members of the community whether they are in favor of the license plate reader system,” and most are “not comfortable with it” and feel “it is an overreach of privacy.” Hayman did agree with some who saw a certain value to the police department, but he did not see its benefits outweighing its cost. Regarding Placer.ai, he said the information the Economic Development committee wants to gather from it might be “benign in and of itself,” but “when you look at the overall picture of how people are being monitored,” caution is advised. And practically speaking, he questioned the cost versus benefit of including these in the city’s budget. “It doesn’t take artificial intelligence to observe we had a large crowd size” during the first Night on Balsam event. He wanted the two items pulled and to have a “full-fledged conversation amidst the council and the public.”

A lively battle occurred during the “Discussion/Action Items.” Like the calm before the storm, most of the matters passed without much conflict. But the storm came in full force when a “Rate Adjustment Request for Solid Waste Services” came up for discussion. Perhaps the quick, angry reaction from the citizens of Ridgecrest was sparked by memories of the long war they have been battling for about ten years over the City’s trash collection and recycling conflict. From Benz to now Waste Management of California, Inc. (WM), the City seems to be losing the battle trying to comply with SB1383. The state’s new trash recycling mandate has added an organic category and has reduced most trash pickup to every other week. Even the mere mention of a rate increase pulled emotional triggers, and the battle lines were drawn.

On one side of this issue stood some council members and many upset residents who stood against the 6% increase slated to be implemented in July. First, the attending council members spoke. Holding up an “LA-telephone-book sized” mass of data given to him prior to the meeting, Skip Gorman did not see any compelling proof that led him to believe WM needed an increase, citing decreased diesel costs. He then commented on the poor service Ridgecrest has received from WM these past six months. He said, “trucks are missing pickups,” and their “local responsiveness has been wanting.” He said when people call to complain, all they get is a “Byzantine labyrinth of robotic voices,” and “they may or may not [speak] to a live human being.” Gorman believes it is “tone deaf” to be asking for a rate increase at this time. He concluded, “I am not against an increase, but I am against it now. Perhaps next year.” Hayman agreed, “I’m with Skip. The timing is horrible.” Mayor Pro Tem, Solomon Rajaratnam, emphasized changing the bi-weekly schedule to weekly. During the public comment portion, Kyle Benson remarked that this WM contract was “done without the consent of the people.” He looked at City Manager Ron Strand and said, “Your job is not to make us compliant; your job is to serve us!” He and many remote callers listed the many problems seen with WM’s service. The problems mentioned were flies, atrocious smells, overflowing trash cans, and small organic cans blown over by the wind, spreading trash that invites ravens.

On the other side of this lively battle stood Strand and City Attorney Martin Koczanowicz. Strand was one of the signers of last June’s Amended Agreement between Ridgecrest and WM. Even though the Agreement is 57 pages long with seven exhibits attached, Strand only emphasized the paragraph that allows for a 6% annual rate increase. Similar to the beginning of every old Fantasy Island episode, when Tattoo points to the sky and shouts to Mr. Roarke, “De plane! De plane!” both Strand and Koczanowicz, when answering objections to the increased rate, pointed to the Agreement, and said, “De Contract! De Contract!” Strand did acknowledge that the service performed by WM has plenty of room for improvement, but he felt things would get better over time as people’s habits changed and the business sorted out the employee problems.

Part of what made The Longest Day such a memorable movie was its rich cast of personalities, such as John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda. But the last city council meeting had its own cast of colorful characters. Ridgecrest’s “first conspiracy theorist,” played by Sinnott, suggested we have a “global New World Order” that has become “shockingly visible the last three years” and is a “global coup d’état.” The ex-cop, played by Strand, threatened to “go to AI to take pictures of your trash and send you fines in the mail.” The driving instructor, played by Gorman, suggested the safest way to drive on 395 is for the driver to firmly plant himself behind a large truck and never pass. The chiropractic doctor, played by Hayman, gave compelling reasons why people should avoid “lab-cultured meat” and farm-raised fish.

During the closing credits of this long meeting, Gorman left us with a warning from Spiderman’s father, who told his son, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As Gorman thought about the ramifications of Artificial Intelligence, he questioned the time when law enforcement would become “distant from human hands.” He asked, “Are we ultimately responsible enough to wield that great power?” He believes we should approach it cautiously. “There is no rush.”

The next city council meeting will be held on July 19.