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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Atherton's City Council has adopted a new ordinance regarding the timely rolling out and rolling in of recycling and trash bins on residential roadsides. The vote got a mixed reception from the audience in the council chambers on July 20, but many in town have complained about bins in roadways.
On a 3-2 vote, with council members Jerry Carlson and Elizabeth Lewis opposed, the new law gives residents 24 hours ahead of the scheduled pick-up to move their compost, garbage and recycling bins into the town's right-of-way, and then 24 hours to move them out again after they're empty.
The issues are safety and visual blight, Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen said. "If you have a party or a wedding, you don't want five, or 10 or 15 garbage cans out there," she said. "This is something a lot of people spoke to us about. ... (Enforcement of this law) is after all the options have been explored. This is a last resort."
There would have to be a history of negligence to warrant a citation, added Councilman Bill Widmer.
Councilman Carlson recommended waiting six months and, in the meantime, contacting the usual offenders.
Councilwoman Lewis said the law goes too far too fast. "We need to rethink the solution to this problem," she said.
The town should send letters to all residents suggesting that they be respectful of their neighbors and their streets, she said. The $20,000 allocated to this program for staff time, printed notices and decals should be spent on a task force of volunteers to be on call to pull bins off the streets, she said.
There were audible boos after the council's vote. Of the comments from the public before the vote, most were negative.
"My mother-in-law abhors the sight of garbage cans and she is opposed to this ordinance," Anne Senti-Willis, a resident and an attorney, told the council. "As it reads, it's 24 hours, black or white, you get a ticket. That's the way it reads. I don't have the time to call code enforcement and argue with them about whether I should get a ticket."
Trash hauler Recology is "a huge part of the problem" in that the workers "don't put the trash cans back nicely," resident Colleen Anderson said.
Atherton has no sidewalks and roads are often edged with gravel, which can be unwieldy in accommodating the plastic wheels of what can be large, heavy and awkward bins.
The law's target is a "very small" number of residents who habitually refuse to move their empty bins for days or not at all, Interim City Manager John Danielson said in a phone interview.
The ordinance is one paragraph. While it may resemble ordinances in other cities, the difference lies in how it's applied, Mr. Danielson said.
Residents with blue DMV placards are eligible to have recycling workers roll their full bins out to the street, he said. If rolling the empties back inside is the gardeners' job and they come two days after the pickup, that can be accommodated, Mr. Danielson said.
He is an interim city manager and his nuanced approach isn't written into the language of the law. What if his successor takes a different tack? "I've been in this business quite a few years," Mr. Danielson said. "City managers take their cues from city councils."
The Almanac asked Ms. Senti-Willis, who pushed for more nuanced language on enforcement, to comment on whether a future council might actually turn draconian on this law.
"I have no idea," she said. "It's really a question of what people complain about. I think it's probably better, at the town level, to be as explicit as you can possibly be."
Ms. Senti-Willis said she would have liked the ordinance to spell out how residents could notify City Hall of an upcoming long weekend, perhaps through a phone call to City Hall as is done with the police department.
At least a half dozen cities have had problems with recycling bins and solved them with ordinances like this one, including in Redwood City and Monte Sereno, Councilwoman McKeithen said, adding that there are provisions for the disabled and it is not meant to be harsh.
Just because a law exists doesn't mean it has to be enforced, City Attorney William Conners noted. "You've got dozens and dozens and dozens that are violated every day," he said. "Laws are selectively enforced all the time."