A Montebello resident took legal action on Monday against a referendum that calls for a second look at the city’s Athens Services waste hauling contract. Irene Villapania filed suit against the city clerk and the council for condoning a referendum petition that may put the fate of the contract to a vote by the people.
“Villapania charges that the petition is fatally flawed and a clear violation of California election law,” Athens Services’ spokesperson Mike Lewis wrote in a press release sent Monday.
Lewis says Villapania has been a resident of Montebello for 14 years and currently works at the Azusa Chamber of Commerce, which lists her as the chamber’s executive director. She told EGP on Wednesday that she would not be making any public comments regarding the lawsuit.
She is one of the residents who felt she was given false information when being asked to sign the petition, according to Lewis. “I knew quite a few people who said they were misled,” he says. She is being represented by the law offices of Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk and Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, with Athens Services paying for her legal expenses in this lawsuit.
City Clerk Robert J. King stands by the decision that led him to be sued by Villapania. He says both Athens Services and the independent haulers had indicated they might file lawsuits. “We figured that we were going to be sued. One or the other was going to sue. Other than that, what the council does is beyond me,” he says.
King says it was not his responsibility to make a substantive evaluation of the petition before letting it circulate, sending the signatures to be verified by the county, and certifying it before sending it the city council for a vote.
The council was supposed to make a decision regarding the referendum at last night’s meeting, held after EGP had gone to press. The council had the option of either rescinding the Athens contract, or voting to send the referendum to the ballot for a vote by the people.
“I’m sure they figure that the petition they had out there was flawed and that I should have claimed that it was flawed, but it’s not my job. I got three different independent advice — two from city clerks and one from a company that does elections and what not — and it’s not within my privilege to do that. And it’s been indicated by all three of them that it’s not my job and it’s in the state code. I would be breaking the law if I did declare whether it was flawed or not,” he said.
Lewis says the suit is meant to go beyond what the city clerk is willing to do. “I think the position the city clerk is taking is that his duties are strictly ministerial. Okay. Then we need to get someone to make a decision on whether it was valid or not. If you’re not going to do it, then we’ll ask the court to do it, Lewis says.
According to Lewis’ press release, Villapania’s suit claims the referendum did not include important elements such as “the schedule of rates to be charged,” information about “the free weekly collection of residential customers’ bulky waste and free additional green waste containers,” as well as the information that the city of Montebello would receive $500,000.00 and revenue from 7.5% of the gross receipts for signing the contract.
A copy of the referendum petition obtained from the city shows that the petition did include a transcript from the July 23 meeting during which the terms were laid down for the city’s signing reward and cut of the receipts. However, the rate schedule and the weekly green waste container collection were not a part of the petition documents. Staff reports that came with the July 23 meeting packet also did not contain this information.
The city attorney told EGP that a contract with all the terms agreed upon by council members was drawn up by the end of July, just after the contract was approved. Chris Robles, a consultant for the referendum campaign, contends he attempted to get a copy of this contract amended with the verbal agreements made at the council meeting but was told what he was asking for was unavailable.
Many of the terms were set verbally during the meeting. This bottlenecked the process for preparing the petition, says Robles.
He says the petitioners had 30 days to file their referendum petition, but it took two weeks for a transcript of the meeting to be prepared by the city so that he could include it with the petition. This meant the petitioners had less time to gather signatures, he says.
Lewis cites California Elections Code Section 9238, which he says requires a petition to contain the full text of the ordinance or the portion of the ordinance that is the subject of the referendum. The city clerk should have cleared this up, according to Villapania’s suit.
Robles thinks this lawsuit is a ploy by Athens to meddle with the referendum process. “If Athens and the council members actually believed in the contract that they’ve put together and believed that it’s in the interest of the community, then why not let people vote on it? Why not have open discussions about it. Why not put it on the ballot?”
Dennis Chiappetta, the executive vice president of Athens Services says the city stands to gain from accepting their contract agreement of becoming its only hauler. “Athens was awarded a contract extension to include commercial waste removal because of its unique qualifications, which include a state-of-the-art recycling facility, a new fleet of “green” natural gas clean trucks and guarantees to ensure that Montebello meets its legal obligations to recycle,” he is quoted as saying in Lewis’ press release.
The city’s latest verified rate of diversion, which indicates how much of the city’s trash is diverted from landfills to recycling centers, is 62% or 12% above the state-mandated 50%, according to information provided by Public Works Manager Michelle Haro. It is up to the city to make sure that the haulers in its city are complying, and for each day that it doesn’t, the Integrated Waste Management board fines the city $10,000. Montebello has never been penalized, according to Haro.