July 18, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The La Grande City Council Wednesday night voted to raise garbage rates by $1.75 a month to help defray the cost of a yard waste depot program and at the same time indicated it plans to get tough on backyard burning violators.

But that did not stop two members of the citys Air Quality Commission from resigning. The commission, which advises the council, wants a complete ban on all yard debris burning, but the council would not go along with that.

The council got bogged down in parliamentary procedures but appeared to come to a consensus that the city would discuss the issue again next month after ordering staff to come up with a plan to crack down on people who burn such things as plastic, green material such as grass and other things that cause a lot of smoke and smolder for a long time.

The majority did not appear to favor a total ban on backyard burning.

The vote early in the discussion was 4-3 to table the ordinance that proposed a total ban, but this angered councilor Joel Goldstein, who said that tabling the issue was using a parliamentary maneuver to cut off discussion. I feel blindsided.

Mayor Colleen Johnson said, I dont like burning, but my alternative would not be to go to a total ban. Its difficult for the council where two-thirds of the citizens say they want some form of burning.

Goldstein said a survey Johnson referred to did not address the issue properly.

A persons right to breathe was not addressed, he said.

Air Quality Commission chairman Pam Kleeman and member Dorothy Fleshman resigned. Kleeman said her work was done, that the commission had spent three years researching the burn issue and recommended the complete ban based on the interests of all the city.

Its an issue of air quality. Recycling encompasses more than debris burning, Kleeman said.

She chastised the council, saying, evading the issue will not make the problem go away.

Fleshman said that tabling the issue was the last straw for me ... the commission findings had very little impact.

She said the commission had worked very diligently in leading the way to educate the public about the health hazards of smoke.

The city council wont vote on the issue, she said. I had hoped they would recognize the (health) danger and be leaders, do something about it. The commission was not even involved in the decision to delay.

Fleshman, who has been involved with both city and county efforts dealing with burning over the past 10 to 12 years, said she was frustrated with the attitudes of our leadership. Nearing 75 years of age and having fought the good fight, I believe the stress of watching good people do nothing is starting to take its toll on my health.

She said in her resignation letter she had been watching the political footballs rather than authority willing to do the right thing for the health of people.

Adding the $1.75 monthly fee would permit subscribers to the City Garbage Service, a private company with the franchise to collect garbage in the city, to take yard debris to the Material Recovery Facility on Highway 30 free of charge. The program takes effect Aug. 1.

The city feels this yard waste depot will encourage community composting of green waste rather than having it taken to the land fill. This should result in a reduction in the amount of yard debris that is burned, thus benefiting the air quality in the city.

Ron Larvik, the owner of City Garbage Service, said in an interview that the decision to delay establishing a recycling program in La Grande was entirely a city staff decision and is a separate issue from the proposed ban on backyard burning.

City staff had recommended to the council that the proposed ordinance to ban backyard burning by April 1, 2002, be tabled indefinitely. Community Development Director Mike Hyde said the city council had indicated it needed more information on the likelihood of increased garbage rates before imposing a total ban.

Under an existing ordinance, backyard burns are permitted four months of the year, two in the spring and two in the fall.

Larvik said in an interview he was not the stumbling block to the idea of establishing fees for recycling.

We had the numbers ready last year on the alternative to burning. I presented the numbers to both a city council work session and at a regular city council meeting, Larvik said.

Garbage dumping rates will go up countywide when the county closes the Fox Hill Landfill within the next two to five years. After that, garbage will be hauled to a regional landfill at an estimated minimum of $50 per ton.