Five minutes before a sparsely attended Hayward City Council meeting two weeks ago, Richard Valle approached city officials just settling into their seats. Valle, the city's representative on the county Board of Supervisors, shook hands with a few and engaged in brief chit-chat. Then about 20 minutes later Valle, who also is President/CEO of the Union City non-profit recycling company Tri-CED, asked the city to approve a $2.20 average increase in recycling rates.
The council also approved a special request from Valle to let his company ship some unusable recycling materials to Pakistan for six months — a significant exemption from the city's longstanding environmental principles.
Valle's dual allegiances appear rife with potential ethical conflicts, primarily that of a powerful county supervisor lobbying cities in his own district on matters that affect his company's financial interests. As supervisor, he frequently casts votes that could benefit or penalize the cities he also appears before as CEO. While there is no evidence that he has used his power illegally or inappropriately, his oversized role in funding city safety services and affordable housing grants is clear.
"Every year a grand a jury is seated and every year I have this conversation," Valle said after last week's council meeting, referring to the Alameda County civil grand jury. "I've asked the same question to our general counsel, because I don't want to have any conflict."
From Hayward's perspective, there is no conflict because Valle's recycling company subcontracts to Waste Management, and therefore taxpayers are not directly paying Tri-CED, Hayward City Attorney Michael Lawson said.
However, former Oakland deputy attorney Mark Morodomi said Valle and other elected officials who also hold private-sector jobs have to maintain clear lines between both positions. "He has a right to have a personal business as long as he keeps it personal," Morodomi said.
While Morodomi believes Valle does not possess a clear conflict of interest, he disagrees that being a city subcontractor protects Valle. "The fact he's a subcontractor is not a lifesaver," Morodomi said. "Everyone knows the money is eventually flowing to his company."
When Valle addressed the Hayward City Council Feb. 5, several elected officials appeared to deliberately avoid referring to him as supervisor. One councilmember did so before quickly correcting herself, calling Valle the president/CEO of Tri-CED.
But Valle himself blurred the lines separating his two roles when he referenced his advocacy at the county level for an effort to lobby Gov. Gavin Newsom on growing concerns about a new Chinese recycling policy. Small-time U.S. recycling companies have been bedeviled by the policy, which was enacted last year.
"This industry is impacted statewide, nationwide and worldwide and the setbacks we're seeing is because of a lack of leadership," he said. "Nobody is championing this issue."
Valle had cited the onerous recycling policy as a pretext for the Hayward rate increase. The Personnel, Administration, and Legislation Committee of the Board of Supervisors last week backed the effort to take the issue to Sacramento. When asked about his dual allegiances, he said, "If I worried about what other people thought, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."
Valle's request to increase Hayward's recycling rate by a total of 2.6 percent was roughly in line with the rate increased granted in the past few years. But his additional request to grant Tri-CED a six-month waiver to send leftover recycling material known as "unders" to Pakistan — which the council approved, 6-1, last week — is a deviation from the council's recent push for environmental sustainability and also presents a negative impact on the city's overall landfill diversion rate. Councilmembers regularly express their commitment to environment sustainability. The motto, "Keep Hayward Clean and Green" has long been a motto that also includes its own standing council committee.
Furthermore, Valle admitted not knowing whether the material will ultimately end up in a landfill overseas. "I don't know what happens on the other end," he said.
When asked by a councilmember why the material could not be sent to a recycling facility in Oregon, Valle said the cost would be prohibitive and delivery slow. Environmental regulations in the United States allow Tri-CED to send just one large shipping container full of material to Oregon, while operators in Pakistan will accept 20 such containers. Councilmember Aisha Wahab, the one official to vote against the six-month waiver, objected on the grounds that Hayward would be "dirtying up" another country.
Valle said large companies like Waste Management can subsidize recycling programs unlike their smaller competitors such as Tri-CED.
There's also the question of how Valle is physically able to serve as the CEO of a company while holding one of the most demanding jobs in Alameda County government. "I start at 4 a.m.; I'm going back to the office right now," Valle said following the Hayward council meeting, which concluded just after 9 p.m. "I do my very best at both of my professions and I do my absolutely to keep my nose clean."
Before serving as supervisor, Valle was a former Union City mayor and councilmember. Tri-CED also has a recycling contract with Union City which is due for renewal this summer. Union City expects roughly the same $2.20 rate increase request from Tri-CED.
After securing the rate increase and six-month window to divert recycling materials to South Asian, several Hayward councilmembers and department heads again exchanged pleasantries with Valle after the meeting. Wahab approached Valle and said, "Are you upset? Sorry I couldn't support the last part." No, said Valle. "Philosophically I don't mind. I can only give you the facts."