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Rhodes out, city to seek new director for Solid Waste Services

Monday, June 1, 2009 by Mark Richardson

The City of Austin has removed Willie Rhodes as director of the Solid Waste Services Department, and reassigned him as the leader of a newly formed Code Compliance section. The City Manager’s office informed Council members of the move Friday in a memo outlining the reorganization.


City Manager Marc Ott said Sunday that Assistant Director Tammie Williamson would serve as Acting Director while the city does a national search for a new director.


Rhodes, who has been director of SWS for nearly approximately 14 years, has been the subject of several controversial episodes in recent years, and has routinely clashed with members the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission (SWAC) over policy matters.


In the memo, Assistant City Manager Robert Goode stated that after the reorganization—which was effective immediately—Rhodes would “remain” as leader of the new group. Ott said no decision had been made about whether Code Compliance would become a department.


Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell said the change was welcome and needed.


“I think it’s a step in the right direction because Solid Waste Services has evolved into a major enterprise, a major part of the city’s green effort,” he said. “My first impression is that several things have come together – including the Solid Waste Master Plan and the Zero Waste plan – that have put a degree of sophistication” into how the Solid Waste Services Department needs to be run.


Attorney Rick Cofer, one of Rhodes’ critics on the SWAC, said this was an opportunity for the city to make progress on some of its environmental goals.


“With Austin facing many critical challenges, as well as important opportunities, this decision will help the Department renew its vision and provide new energy to its mission,” Cofer said. “As we move forward with new leadership, we should embrace this moment to work together as a community for a greener Austin.”


Rhodes’ tenure as SWS director has been marked in recent years by clashes with members of SWAC and other community activists, who have accused him of withholding information about key projects, circumventing public input on major program changes, and in at least one case, incompetence.


Three incidents have stirred Rhodes critics, including the cancellation of a contract to design a Materials Recycling Facility for the city. There has also been criticism of the contract with an outside company to haul the city’s recycling to MRFs in Dallas and San Antonio at a financial loss for the city. His handling of the MRF contract brought calls from several SWAC members for an investigation.


In addition, the SWAC complained vociferously to Council when staff sent forth a recommendation for a $1.5 million integrated solid waste management master plan contract with HDR Engineering without consulting the commission. On May 21, Council postponed consideration of the contract.


According to the memo, the City Manager’s office is separating the Code Enforcement Division from the Solid Waste Services Department, and renaming it Code Compliance.


“With this change, we are also beginning to refocus the Code operation from an enforcement model to a compliance model.” Goods said in his memo. “This change may be perceived as minor, but the intent is to reach compliance using cooperation, coordination, and communication.”


Goode said there would be few budget changes immediately as the two entities would share administrative, financial and human resources functions. He said the funding structure will not change immediately, but during the upcoming budget process, his department will study ways to change the “mix of revenues that fund both Code and Solid Waste Services.”


In Fact Daily reached Rhodes by telephone at his home over the weekend, but he declined to comment for this story.

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