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Council members, others question process for BFI agreement

Thursday, November 6, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Two City Council members said Wednesday that while they may agree with the terms of a settlement reached last week between BFI Waste Disposal and the city over the Sunset Farms Landfill in northeast Austin, they are not happy with the process. But a member of the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission, which has dealt with the issue extensively, said there should have been public input and a public vote on the agreement.


Council Member Randi Shade said she agrees with Council Member Lee Leffingwell’s assessment that it was the “best deal” the city could get. The agreement states that Austin will not oppose BFI’s permit application to expand the landfill, but will stop taking in materials in November 2015. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 4, 2008). Council Member Laura Morrison was more cautious in judging the agreement but now seems more focused on how the city made the decision to act without informing the project’s opponents.


The landfill expansion has been the subject of a long-running battle that includes neighborhoods next to the facility, environmental groups, city, county and state leaders and BFI, which operates the landfill.


Shade said she spoke with Leffingwell on Wednesday about the agreement, and I have a much higher level of comfort in the outcome then I did before,” she said. However, she still believes that the process for coming to a decision was flawed because neither she nor Council Member Laura Morrison were briefed on the matter before the agreement was filed.


“I think the alternative of leaving it up to the TCEQ would have been much worse,” she said. “I feel like the process was terrible but the ultimate outcome is better then it would have been if we have left it up to TCEQ. We know that BFI is done in 2015, we have agreement on that. I felt like the only other alternative would have been unknown and that would have been worse. But until I had the conversation with Lee to get the full history I had no idea what was coming down the pike.”


Shade confirmed that no member of the staff had informed her about the agreement. “And the thing is I’ve had so many experiences so far where I feel that the city may make good decisions but the process was flawed. And we find out after the fact and then we’re in this defensive mode and it happens time and time again.”


Morrison was also concerned about not being notified about the agreement.


“Clearly, I have some issues with the process,” she said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to evaluate it from all sides whether it’s the best resolution. A lot of people have been involved in this for a long time and it would be important for me to take in all perspectives.”


Morrison said other Council members might have had a longer history with the issue.


“I understand there may have been a sense provided by other Council members, but it’s not clear to me how detailed an understanding they had on the settlement agreement,” she said. “So I think there’s probably more to learn on how that all happened.”


She said she had questions about just how much detail the Council feels they have to give staff in order for them to proceed on an issue. She said it appears that staff was acting under a deadline.


“Apparently the administrative court laid out a schedule, and by today (Wednesday), the city had to submit the testimony and exhibits, so the agreement would be part of all that,” she said. “As I understand it when you submit this filing it means your testimony can’t go beyond that.”


Rick Cofer, a member of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, said Wednesday that the process was not only flawed but that the outcome was a bad deal for the city.


“I’m appalled that there was not one scintilla of public comment on this agreement,” Cofer said. “Indeed, at least one Council member did not even see the agreement until after it was filed.  While reasonable people can disagree about whether or not it is the correct policy decision to compromise, I believe continued opposition to the BFI expansion is the correct choice.”


He said he believes the handling of the agreement violates the City Charter.


“I believe that this agreement clearly marks a change in City policy,” he said. “I find it unconscionable that the City would change positions without a public vote.  There are only two possible explanations.  First, the City Attorney’s office went rogue and negotiated and filed this agreement without Council input or knowledge. Or, second, that while in executive session, the Council told management and the City Attorney’s office to negotiate this agreement.  Either scenario would be illegal and I view as grounds to repudiate the agreement.”


The agreement does not settle the matter, it only removes the city as a party contesting the permit. A contested case hearing over the TCEQ permit application filed by BFI is scheduled for December, and the other parties in the case continue to press their objections.

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