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SWAC members unimpressed with report on department management

Monday, March 16, 2009 by Mark Richardson

Members of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission were left feeling like they ordered a steak and received a bologna sandwich last week, after they heard a staff report on the process the city is using to perform an organizational assessment of the Solid Waste Services Department.


There is a long history of animosity between the commission and Solid Waste Services staff, particularly agency Director Willie Rhodes. The issue came to head last fall when SWS announced it was canceling the contract to build a Materials Recycling Facility for the city at roughly the same time it was beginning a Single Stream recycling project, though the commission cited several other instances of questionable decisions.


At the time, SWAC members called for a management audit of SWS by an outside firm. Council Member Lee Leffingwell agreed and said he would ask the City Manager’s office to look into the matter.


But at last week’s meeting, when SWS Assistant Director Tammy Williamson gave a report on the process currently underway, SWAC members and others had trouble connecting one to the other. According to the report, instead of an outside firm, a team of auditors from Austin Energy is currently reviewing documents and interviewing SWS management, with the goal of providing an interim report to Assistant City Manager Robert Goode by the end of March.


“I certainly did not hear anything about public input to that process,” said SWAC Member Rick Cofer. “At the time this came up, we wanted a thorough look at the actions that have led up to several events. This is more like a financial audit to see how the money was spent. I am very surprised that we heard nothing about community input.”


Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, was even more direct.


“This is nothing like the process we asked for,” she said. “This is letting the folks who run the agency give their story of how they did. That’s getting a review from the cheerleaders. We need some direction for a real audit of the agency that looks beyond the numbers and studies the decisions that have been made. We need a real assessment, not a whitewash.”


SWAC Chair Gerard Acuña said the public should at least have an opportunity to give input on the process.


“It doesn’t cost a lot of money to set up a meeting where the public can have a say,” he said. “I think we need to request a community meeting on this assessment.”


Commission Member J.D. Porter reminded SWAC members that it had the power to call a public hearing on the matter.


“We have that option,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve done on other things, and there’s not reason we can’t do it here.”


Acuña instructed SWS staff to request that ACM Goode add some type of public input to the process. The item was added to the April meeting agenda for further consideration.

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