Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave… (October 8, 1997)

As reported here recently, plans by MSWMA (Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority) to build a $4 million mega-garbage station on North State Street in Ukiah are down the tubes.

Last Wednesday (10/1) the City of Ukiah decided to proceed with an offer made by its own trash hauler to construct and operate a garbage transfer station on a five-acre parcel just south of the Ukiah airport. Coupled with a similar plan put forward by Willits trash hauler Jerry Ward for the north county area, the County’s waste stream most likely will be flowing through two collection centers prior to shipment to out-of-county landfills. Ward’s proposal and the one just proffered Ukiah by Solid Waste Systems share many of the same features. Most important to ratepayers are the significant cost-savings each proposal contains. Unlike the monopolistic MSWMA venture, with two separate transfer stations competing for the County’s trash flow, consumers will be assured that free market forces will come into play. Aside form initial savings of $5-$6 per ton in so-called tipping fees, Ward and SWS are building garbage stations at one-quarter of the expense of MSWMA’s Taj Mahal. As events unfold in upcoming weeks I’ll keep you apprised of the status of both developments. However, what I shall do now is fill you in on what’s happened in the couple of weeks concerning MSWMA’s general manager Mike Sweeney and some rather bizarre and disturbing occurrences.

It’s now known that one of the major reasons the MSWMA mega-station deal fell apart is that Solid Waste Systems, which was awarded the original transfer station contract, backed out of the contract because of legal concerns about an ongoing lawsuit. The North Forks Improvement Group (NFIG), a 600-member organization of homeowners and small businesses neighboring the North State Street site, went to court last year challenging the MSWMA project on environmental and planning grounds. The case is now on appeal and NFIG spokesman Pat McAllister said recently that the appellate process could last several years. The group’s attorney, Tim Stoen, believes the Superior Court judge “made serious errors of law giving us a decent chance to prevail on appeal.” Stoen cites the judge failing to hold MSWMA to commonly held legal standards as proper and adequate notice to agencies such as the California Highway Patrol and the Ukiah School District, neither of which received critical planning and environmental impact review documents for the proposed project. Both agencies have raised serious concerns regarding the project, especially the CHP which performed a study that concluded, “From a public safety/traffic hazard view, the proposed site on North State Street is unacceptable.” McAllister says that given the legal uncertainty surrounding the project, “One would have to be quite foolish to proceed on a $4 million project which the courts may quite well rule was conceived of and built in violation of the law.”

Evidently, MSWMA’s own choice to build and operate the North State Street facility — SWS — felt the risk of sinking money in the project with litigation still pending was not a sound business decision and bailed out of the deal. In a letter dated 9/2/97, SWS’s attorney advised: “If you were to construct the transfer (station) while the appeal is pending, you would be acting at your own risk… So it would not be prudent, in my opinion, to go ahead until a final ruling has been achieved.” Acting on their attorney’s advice, SWS informed Sweeney they would not be proceeding with the project and gave him a copy of their lawyer’s letter.

At that juncture Sweeney was obligated to inform his bosses, the MSWMA board, of this development. However, he didn’t do that. Instead, Sweeney kept the information from MSWMA, from the Board of Supervisors, from the city councils, and, last but not least, from the public. Sweeney then proceeded to resurrect the MSWMA project by recommending that MSWMA re-open the bidding process for a transfer station at the very same site which was found to be too risky by SWS.

At the 9/23 Supes meeting, Sweeney’s shenanigans came to light. Third District Supervisor John Pinches had received a tip that Sweeney had concealed the vital legal document dooming the MSWMA project.

Addressing Sweeney, Pinches stated that he had just received information about the letter and asked Sweeney if he could confirm its existence. Sweeney admitted he had received the letter. Pinches asked him if he had disclosed the letter to MSWMA or other officials. Sweeney replied that he couldn’t “recall the distribution of that letter.” Patti Campbell, of the 4th District, and one of the two Supes who serves on MSWMA, stated she was fairly certain she had never seen the letter or been informed of its contents. Second District Supervisor Richard Shoemaker, who sits as MSWMA’s chairman and who has taken the lead in pushing the North State Street project, sat mute during this exchange.

A day later on 9/24, Sweeney wrote Pinches a letter stating that: “Solid Waste Systems rejected the attorney’s advice. At the Fort Bragg City Council meeting on 9/15, the company was asked a direct question as to whether it was willing to proceed with the contract to build at 3401 N. State Street. The company’s president, Jim Salyers, replied that the company was willing to proceed.”

The only problem with Sweeney’s letter to Pinches is that Salyers never made any such statements, either at the Fort Bragg meeting or anywhere else. NFIG’s McAllister investigated the situation and sent off his findings in a memorandum to MSWMA. Here is McAllister’s memo:

Oct. 1, 1997, 

TO: Bruce Burton, Vice Chair, Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority (MSWMA)

FROM: Pat McAllister, North Forks Improvement Group

Dear Bruce,

As per our conversations of the past two days, the North Forks Improvement Group (NFIG) would like to be made aware of how the MSWMA board intends to deal with the recent untruthful and misleading statements in the letter from Mr. Sweeney to Supervisor John Pinches dated 9/24/97. A review of the videotape of the Fort Bragg city council meeting in question clearly shows that Jim Salyers, of Solid Waste Systems (SWS) did not address the council, and therefore not the subject, as contended by Mr. Sweeney. Mr. Salyers can confirm his absence on the tape when he returns from vacation next week.

Your comment that perhaps it was not the meeting of 9/15/97, but possibly an earlier meeting at which Mr. Salyers made the statements is not acceptable, because the only other meetings at which the proposals were discussed were those of 5/27/97 and 6/23/97. For Mr. Salyers to have referred in those meetings to his counsel’s (lawyer’s) statements, made in a letter dated 9/2/97, would have required psychic powers that are not likely available to Mr. Salyers.

What exactly are Mr. Sweeney’s transgressions relative to this matter?

A letter from SWS’s attorney profoundly advising against construction at 3401 N. State Street, made available to Mr. Sweeney on 9/10/97 for the obvious purpose of making it public, was not only withheld by Mr. Sweeney from the public, but also from his own board.

In a letter addressed to SWS on 9/11/97 Mr. Sweeney responded to the attorney’s admonition to SWS with an argument for going ahead with development in the face of the NFIG lawsuit; the argument purported to be the probably legal opinion of the absent Frank Zotter, MSWMA’s attorney. In this process, Mr. Sweeney not only failed to seek the approval of his board for the opinions and statements in his letter, but even failed to make his board aware of the letter. The MSWMA board and the public were finally allowed to share these two letters, the attorney’s admonition to SWS and Mr. Sweeney’s counter-argument on 9/24/97, two weeks after the fact.

After Supervisor Pinches became aware on 9/23/97 of the attorney’s advice to SWS, and after he insisted on public disclosure of the attorney’s letter, Mr. Sweeney advised Supervisor Pinches, the Board of Supervisors, the NFIG, and his own MSWMA board, in his letter of 9/24/97 to Supervisor Pinches, that Mr. Salyers of SWS publicly stated at the Fort Bragg city council meeting of 9/15/97 that SWS “rejected the attorney’s advice” and “was willing to proceed with contract to build at 3401 N. State Street.”

One can speculate, with a high probability of accuracy, why Mr. Sweeney transgressed as he did. However, the NFIG does not feel that it is appropriate for it to impose its opinion on your board. Rather, the responsibility of full investigation of this matter, and others, that may be disclosed as result, and the conclusions and appropriate actions are yours. This is a serious matter involving the public trust; public officials must be held to the highest standard or no standard at all.

If the MSWMA board finds that investigation of this matter, and others that may be disclosed as a result, is not within its mandate, or that the matter does not warrant investigation and public disclosure, perhaps another agency of government could more appropriately take on the task.

Please advise if you have any questions.

There’s not much here to read between the lines. If MSWMA doesn’t act — and act swiftly and decisively — in “handling” the Sweeney affair, it is going to find itself in a big hurt locker. In fact, MSWMA may be there already and just doesn’t know it.

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