Opinion

The right to choose

We speak about freedom and tend to take it for granted only noticing it when it is taken away. Last summer Madera County started a process to award a new franchise contract to pick up trash in the mountains. I was at this first meeting that involved citizens when the word “mandatory” was first used to describe what the county had in mind.

Choice was on the line and I quickly challenged county staff to provide the authority to make anyone subscribe to trash service. No one would ever tell me what authority they had, no citation of law or statute. I kept up my efforts just to be politely ignored. I finally hit books and found the state statutes that clearly limit the ability of any government entity to make people subscribe and pay even if they did not want the service.

You may remember Proposition 13 provided protections against just such an action without a vote of the citizens. Three other sections, Proposition 218, the Integrated Waste Management Act, and a section on how to establish fees for service the county provides explains the process and places limitations to their powers.

Supervisor Wheeler at a recent meeting stated “Sobel did his homework.” I just wished the county staff would have done their homework, too. It was clear to me the supervisors told the staff to create a “mandatory” service program. When it rolled out, it covered most of the more densely populated areas throughout the county. They selectively decided who was mandated and who would not be mandated just because of your neighborhood.

Magically, some people needed big government to tell them what to do and they did this in the name of curving illegal dumping. Somehow I was a law breaker and my neighbor across the magic line was not.

Our county failed to protect your right to choose at every level and ignored me and a hand full of citizens that pointed out the laws. I was publicly badgered at two Board of Supervisors meetings when I stood before them, to not just be another complainer, but I read the statutes and gave them copies. I even met with staff including county council where I systematically showed them the laws and even a report authored by county counsel’s office detailing our right to choose.

Bring on the attorneys ... at least that is what I had threatened to do, and they are waiting. Finally the board of supervisors are listening because they now know I am right. They have just given instructions to EMADCO not to institute mandatory service and I am hoping the county ordinance regarding mandatory service will be removed from the county code. Don’t blame EMADCO, they are just a puppet in this process.

Not done yet - there still remains a Franchise Fee of 6% added to your cost of service, paid to Madera County that was not properly set. No part of the state law was followed in setting this fee. The law allows the county to recover the cost of managing the trash program but they must justify that fee by doing a report on the cost and revenues, posting notice of a hearing and presenting this information in public.

The law is clear - the county can only recover up to “Actual Cost” and the burden to prove this is not a tax and doesn’t go into the general fund to support other county service is on them. I am still hopeful the county will comply with the state law in setting the franchise tax rate. This issue is not resolved yet and the public is already paying this fee.

Supervisors and staff are all unhappy with this issue but they only have themselves to blame as they were told over and over this was not legal and chose to ignore it. The supervisors sit in judgment each week as they set policy and are asked to bless the actions of staff, the so called experts. But when the public has a chance to be heard, the county needs to be listening and challenge the staff to get it right.

We need to be watching and when you have an issue you need to contact the county. That is the only way to keep government from overreaching. You too can say “justify these franchise fees.” Write or call Madera County officials.

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