RANDY PENCH / Bee file, 2010

A bill making it easier for property owners to get rid of unwanted donation boxes pits Goodwill, which backs the proposed legislation, against other operations which also seek contributions of secondhand clothing. Goodwill does not rely on donation bins.

Charities are engaged in California political fights

Published: Monday, Apr. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 8, 2013 - 12:05 pm

Even do-gooders are doing battle as the annual season of sparring over hundreds of proposed laws gets under way in the California Capitol.

An ongoing fight over donation boxes pits Goodwill Industries against several other nonprofits that collect and sell cast-offs to raise money for causes that include aid for poor schoolchildren and various environmental projects.

Neither side is playing nice. The altruistic adversaries have hired powerful lobbyists, with Goodwill retaining one of the Capitol's most well-connected political professionals to lobby lawmakers and coordinate letter-writing campaigns.

A spokesman for the opposition, who has been hammering Goodwill in email releases on a near-daily basis, accused the charity of using a "message of divisiveness and scare tactics to achieve via legislation what they can't achieve in the marketplace: a monopoly on used-article collection."

There's more than ratty T-shirts and worn flip-flops at stake. The trade association representing the textile recycling industry estimates that more than $375 million worth of used clothing collected in the United States was sent or sold abroad in 2009. Goodwill says that its secondhand sales of textiles abroad are worth more than $100 million a year for the nonprofit, whose total annual revenue worldwide from all sources tops $4 billion.

Goodwill has been trying for years to advance laws targeting what it sees as a "surge of unattended collection boxes" popping up on private property without permission. The organization says local ordinances don't give owners sufficient protections for removing donation boxes that become a "nuisance, target for illegal dumping and a blatant violation of property rights."

Their latest proposal to tackle that problem, Senate Bill 450, would authorize cities to give property owners who remove boxes themselves immunity from lawsuits. David Miller, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of San Joaquin Valley Inc., called the bill a "self-help remedy" for property and business owners in cash-strapped cities that are unable to deal with unwanted boxes.

"The locals want to help out and want to assist in this, but they don't have the manpower and the ability to go around and address it as quickly as the property owners would," he said.

The coalition of charities and for-profit recyclers opposing the bill does not see it that way. Its members have accused Goodwill, which does not use collection boxes, of trying to sideline the competition for used goods.

"All we're trying to do is engage in the environmentally friendly and harmless business of collecting used clothing," said John Lindsay, vice president of program development for D.A.R.E. America. "We believe the people of California have the right to choose the charities they support."

D.A.R.E. and the other groups lining up against the bill claim to control 80 percent of the donation boxes in California. They say they already play by the rules, getting permission from property owners or tenants ahead of time. They acknowledge that some bad actors exist, but say the legislation is too broad and will have a "chilling effect" on charitable and for-profit recycling efforts.

Supporters of the bill argue that those bad actors are becoming a big-enough problem to justify a change in law.

Mark Purdom, who manages properties in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, has had to deal with at least three unwanted donation bins in the last year alone. In all the cases, for-profit companies had placed collection boxes on site without permission from Aim Property Management.

Purdom, who asked the companies to get the boxes and then moved them himself if they didn't respond, said he has seen more activity by collection boxes that "advertise themselves as recycling and doing good for humanity when in theory what they really are is a for-profit company."

"In the past, it wasn't really an issue," he said. "In the last two years, we've seen this problem."

Miller, with Goodwill Industries of San Joaquin Valley, said he believes a "large majority" of the 100 or so collection boxes in his organization's area are unauthorized.

But it's hard to tell whether the problem is widespread. While dozens of business owners and Goodwill chapters sent a Senate committee almost identical letters describing a sharp increase in unattended collection boxes, Purdom was the only person contacted by The Bee who could provide a first-hand experience of a specific company that had a problem with removing a box.

SB 450 is the latest example of what for-profit and nonprofit donation bin operators see as a series of setbacks for their efforts to recycle used items.

Some nonprofit collection groups have come under scrutiny for the amount of revenue they spend on causes. Concerns about finances and a lack of charitable aims led European governments to crack down on a major player in the international resale market that has connections to a group active in the Sacramento area in the last decade.

Several cities throughout the state, including Rancho Cordova and Sacramento, have acted in recent years to regulate placement of the bins.

A 2010 law added requirements that the boxes display the name, telephone number and web address of the operator, as well as the cause a charitable collection box supports.

Those actions have raised questions about whether another change in state law is even necessary, especially since there is no evidence of lawsuits filed against owners who removed an unwanted box. A Senate Committee analysis concludes that the bill "appears to respond to a perceived risk that is not yet a problem in California."

Still, Goodwill says doing nothing could put property owners, and the nonprofit world in California as a whole, at risk.

"If property owners continue to have boxes dropped without permission, it's a potential that they're not going to want to work with any of us," Miller said.

SB 450, by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, is a third attempt in recent years at tightening regulation of collection boxes in the state. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have forced operators to get written permission before placing a box, expressing concern that the language was vague and could have unintended consequences for local nonprofits.

Galgiani, a Stockton Democrat, declined an interview request. She pulled the bill from the agenda at a scheduled committee hearing at the last minute Wednesday.

An aide said Galgiani wanted time to work on questions from the committee chair and line up supporters to back her claims.

"The issue is that property owners are concerned about the issue and the cities are concerned about the issue," said Thomas Lawson, Galgiani's deputy chief of staff. "What we're trying to do is getting everybody on the same page. The property owners should have the say."

Call Torey Van Oot, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5544. Follow her on Twitter @capitolalert.

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