Today, the Monterey Regional Waste Management District is a sight to behold, with technology for converting landfill gas to energy, a sophisticated materials recovery facility to sort recyclables, a hazardous household waste collection spot, a massive composting hub. Back in 1969, when then-Pacific Grove city manager Gary Bales first joined the board of the district, things looked different. “Before Gary got here, it was really just a small hole in the ground,” MRWMD General Manager Tim Flanagan said in a sendoff video produced in honor of Bales, who in July, retired after 52—yes, more than half a century—of service on the board. “Literally everything we can see at the district has Gary’s fingerprints on it,” Flanagan added.
Service on the myriad special district boards that govern Monterey County’s waste management, water supply, transit and more are generally left to current staff and elected officials of various jurisdictions. But Bales, now 83, continued to serve four-year term after four-year term as a volunteer board member, well beyond his 25-year tenure as P.G. city manager. “I was just happy being here, and I just stayed with it all this time,” he says.
During his 52 years on the board, MRWMD celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970 with an event at Toro Park—unusual for a solid waste agency in its day—created its first landfill-to-gas facility, opened beloved Last Chance Mercantile and grew from about five employees to 116 today. When Bales first joined the board, it was pretty much just a scale station—no place to meet, so the board gathered at La Playa Hotel in Carmel instead.
Bales, who lives in Pacific Grove with his wife, Judy, spoke to the Weekly about his government service.
Weekly: You spent 52 years on the board of the waste management district. Did it change significantly over that time?
Bales: There’s been a change in emphasis. When I first started, we just buried the waste out there. The way this started is people just dumped their waste on Del Monte Beach, and they would burn it.
The other thing we’re dealing with all the time is the requirements the state puts on us. They found that landfills are one of the biggest sources of air pollution. Now we have quite an elaborate system of gas collection out there; we collect it and convert it into energy.
The emphasis on recycling has been another big change.
You’re an expert on what happens to our trash. Did that lead you to change any of your own habits?
Anything my wife and I buy, we try to get recycled products. We made a lot of personal changes. We got a worm bin when the district was promoting it; Judy takes care of them.
Any advice to your successors?
One major thing is the land that they are using for the landfill is very valuable—to make best use of the land out there.
I was always concerned we would have a site that would serve the needs of the Monterey Peninsula [for a long time into the future]. That space could disappear quickly if you have a lot of extra waste coming in. It’s a fine balance, because you need money that tonnage brings to the district, but you need the space.
I would encourage them to give the general manager their support. I have been involved in appointing four managers, and they’ve all been good people. Sometimes they had more experience than others in solid waste, but they’re good management people.
Tim Flanagan is retiring. Any insight into what the board should look for in hiring his replacement—what makes a good manager?
The ability to work with people, listen to what they’re saying, and try to solve their problems—make sure local government works. People respond to that. You need to have the kind of personality that deals well with people.
Now that you’re really retired, how are you spending your time?
Cleaning my garage.
Have you unearthed any hidden treasures?
No, not really. Just things that I saved that need to go now.
How are we doing in general on waste management, in the scheme of environmental issues?
I have often said there would never be another landfill in California; you wouldn’t get the permits to do it. People are finding other ways, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job.