Great garbage debate

As many people in Oak Harbor have found out, open garbage can lids mean the automated garbage pickup won
As many people in Oak Harbor have found out, open garbage can lids mean the automated garbage pickup won't pick them up. While some Oak Harbor city customers contend their can lids had only slim gaps, the city's position is: Closed means closed.
— image credit: submitted photo

Who has the toughest job in Oak Harbor?

At the moment, it’s probably Rhonda Haines, the city’s utility service coordinator. She has to go around explaining to people why their garbage can wasn’t picked up, and hers is not an enviable position.

Haines’ 22-year career with the city was going smoothly until a new garbage ordinance went into effect in December, to coincide with automated garbage can pickup. Where once a man jumped from the truck, ran to the garbage can and tossed the contents into the truck, the process is now automated. The truck driver operates a mechanical arm that reaches out, grabs the can and slam-dunks the contents into the truck’s bin. It takes only a few seconds.

But for the operation to proceed smoothly, it helps to have the garbage can’s lid closed tightly, which also benefits aesthetics and sanitation. And there’s the rub.

For several months, citizens have been complaining, some vociferously, about garbage cans that weren’t picked up. This happened despite the fact the closed-lid policy was advertised for months prior to the change.

One such incident happened Tuesday, March 5, on the sidewalk in front of the home of Michelle and Scott Lindsey, at 1680 NE Eighth Ave.

The Lindseys were angry that their can hadn’t been picked up the prior Tuesday. “It makes me SO MAD!” Michelle exclaimed. The can was still sitting there two days later, with one corner popped open just slightly.

Scott had left the can out early Tuesday morning. When Michelle saw it wasn’t picked up she called the city. “They sent out somebody who left a note saying my lid wasn’t shut,” Michelle said. She was advised to buy a $4.50 pre-paid garbage bag, place the excess garbage in that, and close the lid firmly.

“It could actually be a lid problem,” added Scott. He said the lid on the city-provided can was warped, making it appear it was slightly open.

At that juncture the city’s Haines drove up to discuss the matter in person. Informational tags on the can and phone messages hadn’t cleared up the situation.

Haines eyed the Lindseys’ can with suspicion. She acknowledge there wasn’t much of a gap between the can and the lid, but surmised that the gap may have been wider when the garbage truck drove by Tuesday. To placate the Lindseys, she ordered a no-cost pickup of this particular can as part of her educational efforts. “I’m not your enemy here,” she said at one point in the debate. “We’re going to pick up your garbage for free.”

Later in the day the issue of the Lindseys’ lid went up the chain of command. Bob Jarski, public works operation manager, said his investigation suggested their lid was three-inches off the can on Tuesday, which was why the driver bypassed the pickup.

The Lindseys deny the lid was ever that far off the can, so disagreement remains. But it’s nothing new to Haines, who has gone through the same routine with other customers too many times to count. “Yesterday, I had 25 complaints,” she sighed.

As a result, the city is no longer showing any leeway on its lid policy, in order to make it as clear as possible. “Closed is closed,” Haines stated, describing the stringent lid standard. It hasn’t always been that firm a policy, she explained. Originally, the driver could pick up a can with a small space between the lid and the can. But that led to problems.

Haines and Jarski described comic scenes of neighbors going out to the sidewalk with a ruler and measuring gaps. If their can wasn’t picked up, they wanted to make sure no one with a similar gap in their can was picked up, either. One man drove his car ahead of the garbage truck, measuring gaps on every can.

For the past two weeks, two city employees have walked ahead of the garbage truck, personally talking to people about the garbage can lid rule, or leaving a card with information on the door if no one is home.

The complaints keep coming, but now some compliments are also surfacing. Haines said people are beginning to notice how much nicer the neighborhoods look on garbage pick-up days. Most cans are neatly shut, with no excess garbage overflowing the top as was typical in the past. There’s less litter and fewer free meals for rats and seagulls.

Jarski expects the continuing education efforts will eventually pay off in a fewer customer complaints. All people have to do is understand the simple policy, which he states with emphasis: “The lid must be COMPLETELY CLOSED.”

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