Beginning as soon as this month, the city of Lompoc is set to implement a pilot program aimed at cracking down on scavenging through garbage bins.
The program, which is slated to go into effect before Oct. 2, will begin with 30 days of educational outreach to anyone caught illegally digging through trash, with the possibility of fines for offenders scheduled to begin after that first month. The entire program, which was approved by the Lompoc City Council in early August, is slated to last six months.
The program was unanimously supported by members of the council, many of whom expressed concerns about the health and safety issues that could arise from so-called dumpster diving, which is in violation of city municipal code.
The topic was first brought forward to the City Council in early March at the request of Councilman Jim Mosby, who stressed then that he was concerned about people going from bin to bin and possibly spreading communicable diseases.
“Shortly after that we have COVID, and there is a potential for that to be spread along the [garbage can] lids, as well,” Mosby said during the most recent City Council discussion of the issue on Aug. 4.
“We’ve really got to step up and do something and stop turning our face,” he later added.
The move was especially welcomed by Greg Ratcliff, the PEG (Public, Education and Government) station manager for the city. In a brief presentation to the governing body, Ratcliff noted that he had overseen a “slow cascade of death” among the equipment utilized by the operation, and he did not sugarcoat the need for upgrades.
Under the new pilot program, which was recommended by city staff, the lone code enforcement officer in the city’s solid waste division will be on the lookout for offenders during his or her normal, daily routine. During the first 30 days, the enforcement officer will take an educational approach and inform violators of the city code and offer materials with other information, like potential health hazards.
After that first 30 days, the code enforcement officer will have the ability to issue citations, which begin at $100 for a first offense and climb to $200 for a second offense and $500 for a third.
Throughout the program, offenders and information related to each offense will be tracked so that the city can use that data after six months to determine how to proceed. For example, if the number of offenses is high, the City Council could look at adding another code enforcement officer.
Mosby said he was primarily concerned about what he estimated to be 20 to 30 of the biggest offenders, a group that he suggested was mostly responsible for the more than 1 ton of trash that was removed from the Santa Ynez Riverbed along the city’s eastern and northern borders two years ago.
“I’m looking at the most egregious offenders that just cost us close to $600,000 to clean up the riverbed,” he said. “And they’re also potentially contaminating our water supply.”
Councilwoman Gilda Cordova shared some of those same concerns and said she felt like enforcement would have to be carried out by more than one person. Particularly troubling, she said, is that the scavenging occurs at homes and businesses at all times of the day and night, and that offenders typically aren’t concerned about threats to call the police because they can just leave before any law enforcement arrives.
“It’s not that a little bit [of scavenging] is going on at night, a lotta bit is going on at night,” she said.
After it was pointed out that fines would likely not be effective with people who have no way of paying them, and that it was unlikely that a judge would issue jail sentences for such an offense, Mayor Jenelle Osborne suggested the city look at possibly ordering litter pickup or community service as a form of punishment.
City Attorney Jeff Malawy confirmed that was a legal option.
While it wasn’t immediately clear what information would be kept about each of the offenders caught during the pilot program, city staff noted that the solid waste division could use the same tracking system that the Lompoc Police Department effectively used to gauge the riverbed situation ahead of the massive 2018 cleanup.
The post-program report is tentatively scheduled to be presented to the City Council in late March.