In most places if someone made an $8 million mistake, folks would want to know who did it — but this is Mobile and it seems as long as it’s taxpayer money there’s really no rush to judgment.
But the judgment is the problem — an $8 million breach of contract judgment against the city of Mobile’s Solid Waste Authority, to be specific. And more than a month-and-a-half after a jury made that decision, we still don’t know how we ended up in this position.
For those who weren’t paying much attention to what may have seemed like a dull squabble between the Solid Waste Authority and garbage-handling behemoth Waste Management, here’s what happened in a nutshell. In a trial that concluded in January, a U.S. District Court jury awarded Waste Management $8 million because the SWA was found to have breached a contract with Waste Management by not allowing it to increase its fees and also by transferring some of the city’s waste business to another company.
Under the contract which was signed in 1993, Waste Management was supposed to be allowed to receive annual adjustments to the $20-per-ton tipping fee it charged the city for disposal at Chastang Landfill after the first two years of the contract. But aside from a temporary increase from 2005-2009 to $23.50 per ton, Waste Management is still getting the same rate the contract allowed for 22 years ago.
The other big issue was the authority deciding to award a contract for handling the city’s yard waste to a local company called Dirt Inc., essentially taking “big trash” as it’s known locally, away from Waste Management. Waste Management’s attorneys said the change cost the company $8.7 million in profits during the three-year period that took place. Before the trial even started, U.S. District Court Judge Kristi DuBose ruled in Waste Management’s favor on that claim, a sign of things to come for the Waste Authority.
So what’s the reason for all this trash talk? What’s the big deal — besides the fact the city’s Solid Waste Authority is now supposed to come up with $8 million that city officials say it doesn’t have?
The big deal is how this all happened in the first place. Why did someone make such decisions in regards to how the contract with Waste Management was going to be honored and who decided it would be a good idea to breach the contract and suddenly start sending “big trash” to Dirt Inc.? Did any lawyers look over this decision and sign off on it? That’s not readily clear, which isn’t surprising considering it was the heyday of Sam Jones when this all happened.
One would naturally assume it was the Solid Waste Authority itself — an appointed group with considerable monetary freedom. And that would be a good assumption, except for the uncomfortable fact the authority didn’t meet for three solid years — coinciding with when this took place. Why wouldn’t a group responsible for handling this kind of fat cash and big contracts meet regularly? They say they could never get a quorum — not enough people were showing up for the meetings.
That’s really not surprising. When Sam Jones stalked the leaky hallways of Government Plaza, it really wasn’t unusual for boards and authorities to meet irregularly, not have members replaced on time or even at all. So once again it looks like we’re taking a hit today for the poor management of the past administrations.
Now the city is saying it’s up to the SWA to figure out how to pay Waste Management, even as it appeals the verdict, hoping something might help them out. But you have to wonder what will happen if the verdict stands and someone has to write a check. Will Waste Management try to come after the city for the money? Or will it all be paid off by allowing much higher fees and payments from the city? Either way the monkey seems destined to land on the taxpayers’ backs, even if it is done more “painlessly” over time.
Like so many things that took place during Jones’ time in office, this mess has the stench of backroom politics all over it. If the authority wasn’t meeting, one would think it’s up to the mayor’s office to correct that situation. But since they weren’t meeting, it also seems logical to conclude someone else had to be making such heady decisions about where to send yard waste and whether to allow tipping fee increases. Either the SWA was doing it without meeting, or someone in the city was driving the trash truck.
As is usual around here we just sort of accept this type of behavior or mismanagement and move on. But the citizens of Mobile deserve an explanation as to how this all took place. Who signed off on sending the yard trash to another company? Did someone in the city’s or authority’s legal teams look things over and decide this wouldn’t be a breach of contract? If so, whose signature is there?
Right now it just looks like the usual ghosts from the past. No one’s really sure and nobody’s talking.
Meanwhile the legal fees continue racking up, at least ensuring someone is making hay out of what appears to be some pretty poor decisions.
The city has thus far shelled out more than 100,000 taxpayer dollars for legal services in defending this case since it was filed in 2013. Nearly 40 percent of that has gone to former City Attorney Larry Wettermark, who was Jones’ right-hand man and running the city’s legal department at the time all this went down. I have no idea if he was part of the decision-making process that led to this massive legal judgment, but maybe he knows who was. At any rate, he’s still getting paid to try to defend mistakes made during his ex-boss’ tenure.
City Council Attorney Jim Rossler represents the Waste Authority too and is also being paid to defend them in this case and the appeal. And now the new city attorney, Ricardo Woods, is involved too.
So we’ve got three high-powered firms involved, an $8-million judgment and still no clear idea as to how a Waste Authority that wasn’t meeting somehow screwed it up this badly. The only thing we do know for sure is Waste Management tried to negotiate a settlement years ago, but it was rejected.
There’s nothing sexy about trash, but hopefully citizens will pay attention to this one and demand some answers. The buck’s got to stop somewhere.