County’s proposed garbage contract dies

After heavy lobbying by competitors and embarrassing public revelations about the legality of a proposed Winnebago County garbage hauling contract, appointed County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) withdrew the proposal Aug. 26 from a vote by the County Board.

The proposal would have given Rock River Disposal Services, Inc., subsidiary of William Charles Investments, exclusive right to haul residential yard waste, recyclables, and waste in unincorporated portions of the county.

Rock River Disposal already has a similar contract to haul residential garbage in Rockford. Larry M. Lyons is president of Rock River Disposal. The head of William Charles Investments is political heavyweight Charles J. Howard of Machesney Park.

The Rock River Times interviewed two of Rock River Disposal’s competitors Aug. 24, Onyx Waste Services Inc., and Waste Management Inc. Waste Management serves approximately 7,000 residences in unincorporated Winnebago County.

Lisa Disbrow, spokesman for Waste Management, was asked why her company did not submit a bid in response to the county’s Sept. 15, 2003, request for proposals.

Disbrow responded by saying Waste Management thought the “free enterprise system” and “competitive pricing” was the best approach to solving the alleged problem that was created when the county banned yard waste burning without enacting provisions for discarding the waste. She added: “It was never our understanding that this was an exclusive contract.”

The day after that interview, on Aug. 25, Dennis M. Wilt, Waste Management’s general counsel and vice president, sent to The Rock River Times and Gary Kovanda, deputy Winnebago County state’s attorney, a letter that suggested a court challenge if the county or Rock River Disposal forced affected residents to contract with Rock River Disposal.

After speaking with Kovanda, Wilt wrote: “Although the Counties Code authorized a county to contract for waste collection, disposal and recycling, the Counties Code does not provide the county with authority to require residents to pay a fee directly to the county’s selected vendor. For such a contract to be enforceable, the county would have to pay for the services from its general fund. …

“Even if Winnebago County had the authority to require residents to pay the county’s selected waste collection provider, such an approach appears to run afoul of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. …

“Given the recently enacted county ban on burning waste, we are prepared to offer yard waste services to all residents we serve in the county. To the extent that the recent yard waste ban may have encouraged the County Board to consider an exclusive arrangement pursuant to which the exclusive provider would be required to provide yard waste services, our doing so voluntarily should eliminate this issue from consideration,” Wilt wrote.

Michael Zudycki, general manager at Onyx, said: “We’ve always offered yard waste pick-up to our customers, and will continue to do so.”

Onyx’s legal representation, Freeborn and Peters, LLP, sent a similar letter Aug. 24 to Christiansen, county board members and other county officials. The letter cites statues that indicate the county didn’t have the right to award an “exclusive right to collect garbage.”

The letter continues: “The law does not immunize the county from claims arising from displaced competition and anti-competitive impacts if it attempts to establish an exclusive collection method. The county apparently recognized legal obstacles to the RRD [Rock River Disposal] proposal when it attempted to modify applicable law earlier this year.

According to Zudycki, county officials lobbied legislators last February to change the law to enable the exclusive contract.

Polly Berg (D-7), Chairman of the Operations Committee that put forth the proposal, identified retired Deputy County Administrator Judith Barnard as pointperson for contacting State Rep. Dave Winters (R-69) and State Rep. Dave Syverson (R-34) to persuade them to introduce legislation to allow for the exclusive contract.

Barnard said Syverson was the Senate contact for the proposal, while Winters and Chuck Jefferson (D-67) were the House contacts. She also said Sally Claassen, purchasing and risk manager, was involved in forging the plan.

Barnard added that the plan to introduce legislation was quashed after Waste Management representatives voiced their concerns about the proposed legislative change.

County Board member Pete MacKay (R-5) was very critical of the garbage proposal. His guest column appears on page A7.

The Rockford Register Star supported the county garbage proposal in its Aug. 19 editorial “Deal with waste hauler ends burning debate.” The local daily newspaper also supported raising Rockford’s garbage collection fee at least $25 for “big dumpers” in an Oct. 8, 2002, editorial.

The following day, Oct. 9, 2002, The Rock River Times published the investigative article “City garbage contract smells,” which questioned the fairness of the disposal contract that existed between Rockford and another William Charles company, Winnebago Reclamation.

About six months later, Rockford officials renegotiated and extended Rockford’s collection and dumping contracts with Winnebago Reclamation and Rock River Disposal. The new contracts expire in 2013, which Rockford officials said saved the city $2.5 million during an 18-month period that ends this December.

Critics of the Rockford deal, including Onyx, argued the contracts should have been subject to the competitive bid process. Former Onyx General Manager Kevin Shaw said in 2003 that Rockford residents will never know how much could have been saved because the contract wasn’t placed out for bids.

Paul Gorski, Democratic candidate for County Board chairman in the fall election, criticized Christiansen for his lack of leadership concerning the county garbage proposal. Gorski said the “plan was ill-conceived and should not have been allowed to consume so much of the board’s time. I’m glad it failed. This is a victory for county residents and local businesses.”

Had Rock River Disposal been awarded an unchallenged contract, it would have likely generated millions in revenue per year for the company.

In contradiction to what Onyx and Waste management representatives reported about not knowing the proposal was for an exclusive contract, Sue Grans, spokesman for William Charles, said: “We bid it as an exclusive contract.” She added that Rock River Disposal put forth what they believed was a “good bid.”

Barnard said that, from the beginning, Onyx, Waste Management, and Rock River Disposal were informed the proposal was to be an exclusive contract.

When confronted with what Onyx and Waste Management said about not knowing about exclusivety, Barnard referred questions to Claassen, who is on vacation.

Berg concluded that now that more information has been revealed and concerns have been voiced, the free enterprise system will solve the problem.

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