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October 10, 2006 > I don't know; what do you want to do?

I don't know; what do you want to do?

by Steve Warga

In a favorite scene from Walt Disney's endearing classic, "The Jungle Book", a couple of bored vultures discuss their plans for the day. "So, what do you want to do," asks one in a Cockney accent; "I don't know, what do you want to do?" replies his mate. Because it's a comedy, this exchange repeats to a comic pitch. Finally, when the question arises one too many times, the second vulture exclaims, "Oh, don't start THAT again!"

Maybe it's funnier in context, but there was nothing funny about the ACWMA Authority Board's latest public meeting on September 27. As TCV readers may recall, ACWMA staff members wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money and countless hundreds of taxpayer funded man-hours trying to install and operate a massive composting facility in the Sunol Valley off Andrade Road and Interstate 680. This project was not only doomed, it never should have started in the first place. It did, though; and it wound up as the third failure under Executive Director Karen Smith's watch.

The Sunol Valley project featured highly questionable conduct from Senior Project Manager Brian Matthews who was heavily involved in prior failures. Also, staff attorney Clem Shute's law firm billed nearly $1,000,000 in fees for preparing a draft and a final Environmental Impact Report. The final report was so badly flawed and incomplete that Shute advised the board against approving it! All three appeared Wednesday entirely unscathed in career or reputation with the board.

When the board asked Smith for a progress report, she turned to a short, single-page memo she drafted September 14 in response to a July directive from the board. Staff was charged with preparing a "think piece" for the September 27 meeting that would contain potential solutions to ACWMA's voter-mandated task of converting up to 75 percent of Alameda County waste and garbage into reusable materials; compost being the preferred by-product. That's when the chorus started. "I don't know, what do you want to do?"

With no apparent embarrassment, Smith explained how she managed over the past 60 days or so, to convene precisely one conference with "maybe five staff members" who produced two fundamentally obvious suggestions. "1) Solicit site proposals from existing in-county solid waste facility operators. 2) Solicit site proposals from public agencies and private entities." The memo concluded with a "recommendation" that "The Authority Board give direction on seeking site (s) for in-county composting facility (s)." Like a mindless mirror, ACWMA staff's response to a board directive was to merely reflect that directive back to the board.

A couple board members offered vague ideas. Otherwise, board response amounted to, "I don't know, what do you want to do?" The board was far more interested in whether or not ACWMA should reimburse a private contractor for money spent on the Sunol project. Why this is so important remained unclear. The contractor knew from the beginning that any investment was speculative in nature. That's just how it goes in the world of commerce. If the contractor sees a breach of promise, it can sue for damages.

The only firm accomplishment from this meeting of an increasingly dysfunctional, county-wide Joint Powers Authority was an agreement to reconvene November 1 with more "thinking." Meanwhile, approximately 2,300 tons-per-day of garbage continues going into landfills in direct violation of voter wishes. ACWMA still collects just under $7 for every ton of that waste. This fee is supposed to be invested in recycling. Since the passage of 2000's county Measure D, ACWMA has collected well over $25,000,000 in recycling fees. To date, not even one pound of garbage has been composted by any ACWMA-funded facility. They are, however, very close to moving into brand new office space. is their website and their logo. Beneath it is their mission statement: "Reducing the Waste Stream for Alameda County". As if ... .

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