Sacred Cows and Hypocrisy at City Hall

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When Key West city commissioners voted to override staff recommendations and choose a higher bid for trash pickup, people in the audience were stunned. But no one was more stunned than Jody Smith Williams.

Smith Williams played a central role in getting the city to hire Kessler Consulting. Their job was to study how trash in Key West was picked up and then recommend improvements. The key alteration was switching from two trash pickups per week to one. That approach was part of what came to be known as the 1-1-1 plan with one trash pickup, one recycling pickup and one for yard waste. What shocked her most was the return to two trash pickups per week.

For over seven years, she advocated for developing a resource recovery system based on expert consultation that would help Key West do something better with its resources than hauling all the trash all the way to Broward County and burning 93 percent of it in the waste-to-energy incinerator there.

City rejects lower bid

The city had in hand a lower bid for the trash contract from Advanced Disposal Systems, a bid they were required to take. However, commissioners Mark Rossi, Billy Wardlow, Tony Yaniz and Clayton Lopez all decided that Key West residents will pay approximately $ 3.50 more per month for garbage and recycling service starting January 2015.

These same commissioners objected vociferously when discussing a proposed 31-cent increase for residential garbage, if the contract option recommended by city staff had been approved.

“I want to give the residents a break,” said Wardlow, flying his populist flag.

Moments later, he adamantly insisted on going back to twice weekly garbage collection and handing the contract for the management of the transfer station to Waste Management, resulting in the $3.50 residential increase – more than 10 times what he had objected to.

Smith Williams wasn’t completely surprised.

“I was prepared for the majority of the commissioners to support Waste Management in the new contract, especially after listening to dozens of high-profile Waste Management fans sing its praises at the podium,” she said. “It was a seriously impressive Greg Sullivan love fest.”

Sullivan is Waste Management’s representative in the Keys.

Commission creates end run to justify choice

So how did the commission justify not selecting the lowest bid?

The scenario was a brilliantly executed end-run to manipulate the political process in order to reward an $ 8 billion dollar company, while ignoring the needs and financial well-being of local residents, businesses and our environment. Instead of Waste Management being outbid by the true lowest bidder, they got the contract and everything they wanted. The company will run the transfer station for an additional $ 300,000 per year or 55 percent above current costs. Two trash collections per week means running an additional set of trucks through the streets of Key West with all the associated greenhouse gas emissions, i.e., diesel fuel and its fumes.

Smith Williams says that she was naïve about the process.

“I would never have imagined that the commission would abdicate all fiduciary and environmental responsibility to line Waste Management’s already deep pockets,” she said. “It finally dawned on me that not only was the fix in for Waste Management to get the contract but also that the commission was willing go to any lengths and spend an additional $ 14 million to make it happen.”

Commissioners Wardlow and Rossi staunchly defended the “need” for going back to 2-1-1 service, despite having just heard recycling coordinator Will Thompson’s report that he hasn’t received one complaint since October about the new single weekly trash collection implemented last July. Commissioner Yaniz, steadfast on the dais in his support for 2-1-1, suggested in a conversation two days later that in fact, he hasn’t received complaints either. It seems it simply was the only way they could ensure a Waste Management victory.

The other three city commissioners – Teri Johnston, Jimmy Weekley, and Billy Wardlow – agreed, indicating that they had not received any complaints at all about the 1-1-1 system after the first couple of months.

Was choice legal?

Legally, the invitation to bid required that the contract be awarded to the lowest bidder. The recommendation made by city staff was for the cheapest option overall, to keep 1-1-1 service, for the city to maintain the transfer station, and award the collection contract to Advanced Disposal Systems, at a yearly overall savings of $ 507,000. Waste Management was the low bidder for only one of the four options presented – the one which included the running of the transfer station and going back to twice a week garbage collection, the one that will cost tax payers $14 million more over the seven-year contract.

During at least an hour of public comment, not a single comment was made in favor of going back to 2-1-1, yet Rossi jumped at the chance to move acceptance of the Waste Management bid. That was immediately seconded by Wardlow. The deal was sealed by Yaniz and Lopez. The entire process seemed decided ahead of time.

The decision flies in the face of positive results already achieved by the new system. Since converting to 1-1-1 service last July, the city’s recycling rate has tripled from its stagnant seven to eight percent to 21 percent. That’s because once a week garbage pick-up creates incentive for people to recycle more and reduce trash.

Smith Williams feels taken in by the turn of events.

“Shame on me, for having been fooled into believing the rhetoric about the city’s ‘commitment’ to recycling and sustainability,” she said.

Yaniz campaigned on recycling issue

Commissioner Yaniz, in one of his early campaign speeches, proclaimed that Key West should not only improve its recycling, but should also become the best recycler in the state. Yet his vote to take the city back to twice a week garbage service will have the opposite effect. The new system of collecting yard waste will surely suffer the most, since less conscientious residents will wish to get these large items off their property as quickly as possible.

Smith Williams said that she and her husband, local chiropractor and member of the Sustainability Advisory Board Dr. Ross Williams, only put their small trash bin out once or twice a month. Now they will be required to pay an extra $42.00 a year for a service they don’t need, rather than being rewarded for good stewardship. A system called “Pay As You Throw” – with people only paying for what they dispose of — incentivizes conservation. Key West now has a system that rewards the biggest wasters, to toss whatever they wish for their money. This move conflicts with the city’s solid waste master plan (approved by these same commissioners), which calls for a Pay As You Throw system in Phase II.

Smith Williams feels somewhat responsible for this reprehensible turn of events.

“I thought bringing industry best practices to light would help us become more like San Francisco with its 80 percent recovery of waste materials and less like, well, ourselves,” she commented. “I thought competitive bidding would present the best deal, and that our city leaders would want the best deal for residents and businesses and would follow the recommendations of expert opinion, and the opinion of staff members who know far more about the details of the issue than they do. Obviously I was very wrong.”