Trash Talk

Steve Vargas says his battle to clean up Brea killed his career at City Hall

November was unkind to Steve Vargas. His house is still in pieces, undergoing a major remodel. His bid for re-election to the Brea City Council failed by just 898 votes. Then after the election, Vargas fell from a ladder while removing one of his campaign banners. He fractured both ankles and is temporarily confined to a wheelchair.

Tragedy travels as a trio, and of the three, the one that stings most is his fall from power—a fall he attributes to trash.

Vargas, 40, was elected in 1998, in part on a pledge to investigate a 1997 deal that gave Anaheim-based Taormina Industries a breathtaking 20-year contract to haul the city's garbage. What's more, the contract is evergreen—it is perpetually 20 years, renewing each year. Vargas wasn't put off his promise even after an acquaintance urged him to shut up.

"Just before I won, one of my friends asked me, 'Don't you understand? Don't you know how the game is played?' He wanted me to back off," asserts Vargas, who was unaware at the time that his friend did marketing for Republic Industries, which had aquired Taormina. "But all I had said was that I'd look into the contract, so I did."

What Vargas found persuaded him that Taormina's deal was a lopsided one. In voting for the 1997 deal with Taormina, outgoing Brea Councilman Glenn Parker had promised that locking in a single trash collector for 20 years would "allow us to continue to provide the service and the rates we've had."

But Vargas says the contract does nothing to limit rate hikes. Indeed, Taormina's Brea Disposal has steadily raised residential and commercial rates in Brea each year. In 1997, the residential monthly rate in Brea was $13.65; today, the rate is 11 percent higher, at $15.14. But there's more: Taormina's rates were already higher than all of its OC competitors. In Lake Forest, where Waste Management offers a three-container recycling program similar to Brea's, residential rates since 1997 have risen just 40 cents to $10.78, an increase of 4 percent.

Each time Brea Disposal requested a rate hike, Vargas voted no and invariably lost, 4-1. His big break came in September, when an audit of the company recommended minor billing changes amounting to about $63,000 in savings to the city. City staff also used the opportunity to change the contract to reflect the fact that Republic Industries now owned Taormina. These revisions brought the whole contract up for a vote that Vargas hoped to use to kill the deal.

"On Sept. 3, we were out of the contract," said Vargas. "We had a chance to get out from under a 20-year contract. We had a chance to negotiate with other companies. I asked my colleagues for a postponement."

But the council members, all of whom had taken contributions from Taormina, some as far back as 1996, voted to continue the contract as before. They said the residents never complained, and the company needed a long contract to invest in trucks and equipment. They wouldn't even postpone the matter for two weeks as a negotiating tactic.

Despite the one-sided nature of the contract, the council's love for Taormina is easy to understand: each council member—except Vargas—has picked up a $1,000 campaign contribution from the company. In a small town like Brea, that kind of money turns the contributor into a major player.

Among those who accepted a big contribution from Taormina was Vargas' opponent in the November campaign, former Brea Police Chief William Lentini. But Vargas had made enemies well beyond the narrow issue of trash collection.

"There were a lot of forces against Vargas because he really represented the thoughts and ideas of the community," said Wade Mansur, a former columnist for the Brea Progress, the city's Orange County Register-owned community paper. "When he would ask a question in the council meeting, it was apparent to all but the other pinheads sitting there that he was asking for the benefit of us. He clearly did his homework."

But homework wasn't enough. Near the end of the campaign, dirty tricksters slapped bright-orange "Stop Circus Vargas" stickers on his campaign posters.

"It's unfortunate we lost our only voice on the council," said Mansur. "Now we have five ding-a-lings up there."