Outcome of Fresno's Measure G trash referendum remains in limbo

8,100 ballots still to be tallied; next update not expected until Friday

The Fresno BeeJune 4, 2013 

UPDATE: The County Clerk-Recorder's Office said as of 10:30 a.m. Wednesday there are 8,100 ballots remaining to be counted. Of those, 6,000 are vote-by-mail ballots and 2,100 are provisional -- meaning they require extra checking by elections staff.

The next vote update to be issued by the clerk's office will occur at 3 p.m. Friday.

ORIGINAL: The ordinance that split Fresno down the middle for months appears headed toward an election finish that does the same.

The "yes" side of Measure G, the binding referendum on whether to outsource Fresno's residential trash service, was barely leading late Tuesday night.

With all the precincts counted, the "yes" side had 50.26% of the votes. A yes vote endorsed the outsourcing of residential trash collection to Mid Valley Disposal, the locally based trash company that poured more than $300,000 into the campaign.

The "yes" lead, substantial early in the night, had dwindled to just hundreds of votes as the count progressed. By the end of the night, "Yes" was ahead by 262 votes.

Fresno County Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth said she wouldn't have a tally of uncounted absentee and provisional ballots until around midday Wednesday. Until then, Measure G is too close to call.

No on G campaign consultant Phil Giarrizzo said he was encouraged by the early-evening returns, despite trailing.

He said the Yes on G campaign made a big effort to gather absentee ballots from supportive voters, so opponents of Measure G were hoping to trail by no more than 3,000 votes in early returns. The initial absentee count had No on Measure G trailing by just under 2,700 votes. The gap had shrunk to 922 after 129 of 194 precincts had been counted. Later in the evening, the gap narrowed even further.

"We're in the hunt. We have the momentum," Giarrizzo said at No on G headquarters on the east edge of downtown. "We think the late votes will break our way."

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin was pleased with Measure G's early lead, but steered far away from anything suggesting a declaration of victory.

"We're feeling optimistic, but obviously we still have a long night ahead of us."

Whatever the outcome, she said, the referendum campaign has been an important part of local democracy.

"I'm really grateful the community took part in this debate," she said at a Yes on G gathering near Fresno State.

Voter turnout was light through much of the day. By 3 p.m., a mere 7% of those eligible to vote at the polls -- voters who had not requested a mail-in ballot -- had cast ballots.

Turnout improved at the downtown elections office after 5 p.m., Orth said, but she did not know whether voting picked up as well at neighborhood precincts.

Nearly 36,000 absentee ballots had been processed by the Fresno County elections department as of Monday morning. Fresno has 217,627 registered voters.

Voting on Measure G began at 7 a.m. Tuesday with an official at each site unlocking the front door and telling the world in a booming voice, "The polls are open!"

The warm morning turned into a hot midday in a city either obsessed or indifferent to Measure G.

Marina Magdaleno, head of the blue-collar union that represents the trash drivers, started walking precincts at 8 a.m. She was in the Fresno High School area by noon. She planned to stay on task until polls closed at 8 p.m.

"We'll be here until the bitter end," she said.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim left his Tower District home after lunch, headed to the polls. The "No on G" sign in his front yard made a secret ballot irrelevant.

Vagim said the outsourcing ordinance, should it survive, is ripe for a lawsuit. He said Fresno voters almost 60 years ago approved a charter provision that prohibits what outsourcing, in his view, tries to do -- turn a city utility into a general fund money-maker. He said voters back then were upset with a City Hall secretly moving money from one pot to another.

The same could be said of recent City Hall practices. Swearengin pushed hard for outsourcing in part because she wants to pay off nearly $20 million of negative fund balances -- money that City Hall for years quietly and improperly borrowed from itself. Some City Hall outsourcing opponents now say this debt should be ignored.

City workers went about their jobs on Tuesday, unsure of what the future holds.

Dozens of truck drivers hauled away the trash and recyclables from homes throughout the city. The outsourcing deal guarantees them and other affected city workers at least one year's employment at Mid Valley. The drivers' hourly wage, though, would drop from about $23 to $17.

Two electricians from the Public Works Department threaded hundreds of feet of copper wire through an underground pipe on Belmont Avenue in southeast Fresno. They are part of an effort to thwart copper-wire thieves and get the city's street lights back on. The same general fund that lies at the heart of Measure G helps pay for the wire.

And a site supervisor at the Ted C. Wills community center near downtown signed in 46 men and women who showed up for the Senior Hot Meals' lunch -- chef's salad or sweet and sour meatballs. The hot meals program, always a political hot potato with the council, relies in part on the general fund to pay staff wages.

It's been this way from the debate's beginning. Look at outsourcing from one angle -- hey, what did the drivers do to deserve this? -- and the idea appears atrocious. Look at the issue from another angle -- hey, let's keep food on Grandpa's plate -- and outsourcing appears less ominous.

Regardless of Measure G's fate, the City Council next week begins hearings on a tight 2013-2014 budget that will be full of painful trade-offs.

Swearengin on Tuesday night said her priority is confirming the Measure G decision, then worrying about budget hearings.

"I'm taking this one day at a time," she said.

Regardless of Measure G's outcome, Council President Blong Xiong said, "the electeds will put aside their differences and do what's best for the people" during the hearings.

Xiong is one of three outsourcing opponents on a council that is now well into its third year of arguing about trash, be it commercial or residential.

This legislative conflict underscores one of the City Hall budget mysteries that Measure G, should it fail, does nothing to resolve.

Outsourcing has been portrayed as a Republican vs. Democrat fight, the former in favor of Mid Valley, the latter against. At the same time, neither side disputes that Fresno doesn't have nearly enough general fund money to pay for the public safety, street repairs and green space desired by the public. Where to cut deeper or tax more will be the council's challenge on Monday if voters reject outsourcing.

Residential outsourcing hit City Hall last spring when Swearengin suggested the idea as a way to help fix yet another general fund budget gap.

The general fund is money spent at City Hall's discretion. Most of the money goes to public safety, with parks getting a portion and public works a sliver.

The City Council by Thanksgiving had a proposal in front of them. Mid Valley would take over all 105,000 home accounts in exchange for a $1.5 million signing bonus and franchise fees that would add as much as $2.5 million per year to the general fund.

The council approved an outsourcing ordinance in December. Outsourcing opponents gathered enough signatures in January to put the issue in the voters' hands.

Outsourcing supporters say City Hall needs Mid Valley's money to maintain public safety and other general fund services.

Outsourcing opponents say there are other ways to fix the budget.

It was impossible to tell from a tour of Measure G hot spots on Tuesday whether voters really wanted the responsibility of deciding who picks up their trash.

The downtown Fresno County elections office showed the hustle and bustle of Election Day with phones ringing off the hook. Voters called with all sorts of questions: What if I lost my ballot? Can I drop it off? Where?

Mosqueda Community Center was quiet even though it was the polling place for three southeast Fresno precincts. Polling booths stood empty. A voter stopped by to drop off absentee ballots for his family.

The man, who did not want to give his name because he is a city employee, said voting was easy because the ballot is one yes-or-no question.

Bee staff writers Angel Moreno and Jacob Rayburn contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at ghostetter@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6272. Read Hostetter's City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.

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