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Commission urges Council to repudiate landfill agreement

Thursday, November 13, 2008 by Mark Richardson

In addition to approving a strongly worded resolution Wednesday night seeking to have the City Council reverse a staff-negotiated agreement with BFI Waste Disposal over a landfill expansion, the Solid Waste Advisory Commission recommended hiring outside counsel to investigate how the matter was handled.


Commissioners were referring to a Rule 11 agreement negotiated and signed by the City Attorney’s staff on Oct. 31 agreeing not to oppose BFI in a contested case hearing before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. BFI is seeking a permit to expand the landfill to 795 feet high, taller than Mount Bonnell.


“It was a back-room deal done behind closed doors,” said Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We elect our City Council members to lead, and they need to be setting the city’s policies, not the city staff.”


City Council members had previously passed a resolution in May 2007 opposing expansion of the landfill and instructing city staff to negotiate with Travis County and the TCEQ to shut down the facility. Several members of the Council were not made aware of the agreement until after the fact, and although some agreed with its intent, most were unhappy with the way staff handled the matter.


Members of a coalition of neighborhoods near the landfill on US 290 East and Austin-based environmental groups held a news conference at City Hall prior to the SWAC meeting. They said they were not only upset over what the city did, but also that the city – who was a partner with them in legal action against the landfill – did not notify them before pulling out of the coalition.


“We have put together a team of attorneys that have been fighting this permit since 2000, and the city was a part of that team,” said Melanie McAfee, who lives and has a business near the landfill. “It’s like you work hard to put a football team on the field, and in the middle of the game, your quarterback leaves the field. The city backed out of the deal without telling us. The process was seriously flawed.”


SWAC Co-chair Rick Cofer introduced a resolution asking the Council to repudiate and reverse the Rule 11 agreement, renew its opposition to the landfill expansion, hire an outside counsel to investigate how the matter was handled, and file a copy of the resolution with the state hearings judge presiding over the contested case.


Environmentalist Schneider suggested that they include in the resolution a statement that, assuming the Council returns to its opposition to the landfill, that it hire outside counsel to represent the city in the landfill permit hearings. Commissioners voted to accept the amendment


Cofer said the situation pointed up two problems.


“First, of course, is that the city changed its policy on the landfill,” he said. “But the deeper question is who makes the policy decisions — Council members or the staff? There are many outstanding questions on how this happened.”


The commission approved the resolution on a 5-0 vote with member J.D. Porter absent.

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