August 22, 2006 > An Opinion: Acts and consequences
An Opinion: Acts and consequences
by Steve Warga
As children, we learn that every act carries a consequence; touch a hot stove, burn your hand; eat your peas and you get dessert; pull your sister's hair, lose your TV privileges. It's a foundational lesson we all must learn through teaching and experience. To some extent, success in life hinges on how well we learn this lesson.
What then are we to make of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority's (ACWMA) expensive, ill-advised and failed act to build a massive garbage composting facility in the Sunol Valley? Over the past few weeks, TCV has examined only several of many, many flaws in this project, one that was proposed four years ago, then pursued with an almost religious fervor.
From Day One, basic business principles and basic public accountability guidelines were utterly disregarded. ACWMA Executive Director, Karen Smith; Senior Project Manager, Brian Mathews; and Consulting Attorney, Clem Shute repeatedly ignored both specific and general laws, procedures, processes and facts in their single-minded devotion to erecting and operating one of the largest open-air composting facilities ever conceived in this country. They did not secure any rights to the land they selected; they disdained plain directions and language in the permitting and zoning processes; they hid damaging information from both the public, at large, and their own overseers, the ACWMA Board of Directors; they submitted critical meteorological data that was blatantly false; and they offered inducements to local residents that may well have been illegal.
Many experienced individuals from the public and private sectors expressed dismay and even amazement at these actions. ACWMA board members, Laython Landis, Bob Wasserman and Jennifer Hostermann tried many times to demand some sort of accountability from these staff members. Each attempt was rebuffed by other board members, including lots of sniping about "beating up on staff." Chris Gray, chief of staff for County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, may have said it best, "This was not normal staff behavior."
These were individuals purportedly qualified by education and experience to perform their jobs of administering a large pot of public money in a professional, rational manner consistent with the mission of ACWMA. Instead, as Gray pointed out, "They became activists for this project."
Landis cites his many decades of public service before noting, "I've never seen anything like the conduct of those staff members. And you can quote me on that!" He is a rarity on that board, Landis does his homework. He studies the reports and projections generated by staff and he expects staff to be accountable. Most of his fellow board members disdain him as an annoying curmudgeon, at best; a crackpot, at worst.
At a contentious meeting in June, Wasserman, a former chief of police, likened staff behavior to those of criminals. "I've never seen anything like this except once when I was involved in a fraud investigation." Wasserman, Fermont's mayor, is also dismissed by most board members. His demands for accountability are mostly met with silence.
A so-called "joint powers authority," ACWMA draws its operating funds from the public in the form of fees levied on each ton of garbage generated in Alameda County. In particular, $6.95 per ton goes to the authority as "Measure D" fees. These monies are allocated for the express purpose of turning waste into reusable compost in accordance with county Measure D passed by voters in 2000. Since then, the ACWMA staff has used those millions of dollars to plan, study and propose composting facilities at three separate locations. Untold millions of dollars later, what have they to show? Zip, zero, nada. They have failed three times now. These are the acts, where are the consequences?
When we were children, our parents bore the responsibility of oversight, as we grew into adults, other persons assumed that responsibility. The key word here is "persons." No matter the authority, persons administer the responsibility. Laws are administered by law enforcement persons; corporations may employ, but persons administer the bylaws; governments conceive our social contracts, but persons determine and administer the details. The point is that public employees are not autonomous. They answer to a group of persons, appointed to oversee hired staff. In other words, the board of directors holds the power of consequences. More than that, they swear a solemn oath to uphold the law on behalf of the citizens of the republic.
The ACWMA board is not doing its job. Collectively, the sworn members of that board are ignoring their solemn oath. The majority of persons on that board have little or no idea what staff is doing. They have abdicated their sworn duties. Want some examples? Jean Quan, an Oakland city council member, stated in June that she had been on the ACWMA board for about 18 months and had no idea what was going on. What's more, she blamed others for failing to inform her. A year and a half of meetings, reports, documents and public comments and she never bothered to consider any of it. Based on the population of Oakland, Quan holds three votes on the ACWMA board.
Board member, Olden Henson, a Hayward city council member, misses no opportunity to express his diligence. He's fond of dwelling on his background in the field of physics and admits to a fascination with new technology. At that same June meeting, Henson bemoaned the political pressures leading to the demise of the Sunol project. He had hoped that the new technology proposed would have carried the day and solved all of Alameda's garbage problems. This observation only served to prove that he hadn't bothered to study the work of staff. Their "new technology" was, in fact, nothing more than an untested variation of an outdated composting method. The variation proposed by staff would have actually increased the problems of odor and pollutions. By the way, Henson is the new president of the board.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of board neglect may be found in the matter of land rights. As TCV reported last week, neither staff nor board ever bothered to secure the rights to build and operate this facility. Out of 17 persons on the board, and multiple persons on staff, all reasonably intelligent and educated, not one managed to catch this incredibly basic error in the process. They all spent countless hours and countless dollars pursuing a third attempt to process about 50,000 tons of raw garbage on land they could not own or lease.
If there are to be any consequences, the voters must speak, because they are the ultimate authority in our representative form of government. If voters in the various districts represented on the ACWMA board voice their displeasure, board members will respond. If voters are silent, the enormous wastage of public money and resources will continue. Complicit staff and board members should admit their failures and resign, but they won't. Citizens must act, or there will be no consequences. To voice your opinion, we have included contact information below:
Alameda County Waste Management Authority Board of Directors
777 Davis Street, Suite 100
San Leandro, CA 94577
Fax: (510) 614-1698
Supervisor Keith Carson
(510) 272-6695 voice
(510) 271-5151 fax
Mayor Beverly Johnson
(510) 747-4701 voice
(510) 747-4704 fax
Councilmember Jewel Okawachi
(510) 526 5720
Councilmember Dona Spring
Castro Valley Sanitary District
Boardmember Dennis Waespi
Councilmember Claudia McCormick
(925) 833-6664 voice
(925) 833-6651 fax
Councilmember Ken Bukowski
(510) 596-4372 voice
Mayor Bob Wasserman
Councilmember Olden Henson
Vice Mayor Marj Leider
Councilmember Susan Johnson
(510) 793-1400, x-130 voice
Councilmember Jean Quan
(510) 238-7004 voice
(510) 986-2765 fax
Oro Loma Sanitary District
Boardmember Laython Landis
Mayor Nancy McEnroe
Mayor Jennifer Hosterman
Mayor Sheila Young
(510) 577-3355 voice
(510) 577-3340 fax
Mayor Mark Green
(510) 471-3232, ext. 32