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Broad-Based Lobbying Saved Dump

July 21, 1989|BILL BOYARSKY | Times City-County Bureau Chief

Lobbying at Los Angeles City Hall has always had a distinctive quality.

At the state Capitol, for example, lobbyists have to wait outside the Senate or Assembly chambers to talk to legislators, or they must watch the voting from the balcony.

Not at City Hall. Lobbyists there summon council members over to red felt barrier ropes near where the lawmakers sit to make a pitch for their clients. Sometimes, in moments of desperation, they signal from the audience.

And this week, City Hall saw something else unusual in legislative advocacy--lobbying by computer-directed phone calls and mail.

One of the world's biggest garbage disposal companies, Browning-Ferris Industries of Houston, won a victory Wednesday by using a phone bank and direct-mail campaign to work up voter support to save its Sunshine Canyon Landfill in the hills above Granada Hills.

That approach was combined with traditional lobbying methods. A substantial number of the City Hall lobbyist corps, including Maureen Kindel, the former president of the city Board of Public Works, which is in charge of waste disposal, were hired by the company.

It worked. Browning-Ferris won a six-month delay in enforcement of a city proposal tightening regulation of the Sunshine Canyon Landfill, perhaps signaling a major change in how City Hall lobbying will be done.

Browning-Ferris lined up backing from groups ranging from a gardeners' trade association to a Goodwill Industries thrift shop. It was a striking example of how Southern California business is using the techniques of modern political communication to battle what it regards as overly restrictive, growth-limiting environmental legislation.

"It's very similar to a political campaign," said Lynn Wessell, the Los Angeles political consultant who directed the campaign for Browning-Ferris Industries. "It is framing what the issues are, getting people to talk and write (to council members), which is very difficult these days."

"I think the issue can serve as a good example of how you get your message out," said Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which supported Browning-Ferris.

Opponents of the project complained about the elaborate and expensive campaign. "We're talking about a few hundred dollars (spent by dump opponents) versus a few thousand dollars," said Granada Hills resident Don Mullaly.

But some political analysts saw it as the latest chapter in a long story of business adopting the tactics of the environmentalist grass roots organizations who beat them in the 1970s and most of the '80s.

In that era, homeowner groups in the Santa Monica Mountains forced the city to stop using landfills in canyons surrounded by homes. They did it by showing up at community meetings armed with information, by providing the press with documents and news releases aimed at proving the dumps were damaging and, ultimately, by participating so strongly in political campaigns that council members listened to them.

Slow-Growth Movement

The same sort of political drive fed a slow-growth movement. With homeowner and environmental groups leading the way, voters in cities around the state passed slow-growth or no-growth ballot measures.

In 1988, there was a change. Business opponents of a slow-growth measure in Orange County raised $1.8 million and hired campaign consultant Wessell. Using a computerized file of potentially favorable voters--those, for example, whose jobs depended on growth--he hit them with telephone calls and mail. The measure, running ahead in the polls through much of the campaign, lost.

Browning-Ferris faced the same sort of environmental and homeowner opposition against its plans to expand the Sunshine Canyon Landfill. In 1987, several hundred homeowners formed the North Valley Coalition with the aim of closing the dump. Coalition members such as Mary Edwards spent hours studying the technical aspects of garbage. Ken Bell began putting out a news letter. Mary Ellen Crosby, a veteran of St. Louis politics, used lessons learned in her politically tough home town to organize a North Valley grass-roots campaign.

Politicians quaked. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district included the proposed expansion area, said the community fears had to be considered. Councilman Hal Bernson, in whose district the present dump is located, said the dump should be closed.

Lobbyists Hired

Browning-Ferris hired lobbyists to do the usual work in City Hall, and gave campaign consultant Wessell the job of organizing a grass-roots counter-campaign.

This year, he put together a computerized list of 30,000 to 35,000 San Fernando Valley residents considered most likely to vote. They had gone to the polls in the low-turnout Los Angeles city election this spring. The idea was that these people were most likely to respond to political appeals for action.

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