Splintered Council opts for recycling status quo

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April 19, 2004 // UPDATED 1:20 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

Downtown Councilmembers vote against staff recommendation, picking incumbent BFI over Waste Management and a local nonprofit

After months of increasingly detailed reports, lengthy committee debates and intense lobbying by citizens and corporations, the City Council finally chose current recycling vendor Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) over local nonprofit Eureka and industry leader Waste Management, Inc. for the city's recycling contract on April 2.

The Division of Solid Waste and Recycling had recommended Waste Management in three reports. It had ranked BFI last, with Eureka number two, in reports issued in January and February.

Solid Waster Director Susan Young characterized the bids from all three companies as "great."

The city stands to make about $1.2 million per year over the life of the two- or three-year contract by selling its collected plastics, aluminum, glass and other commodities. It currently makes about $800,000 per year.

In a two-hour-plus debate veering between parliamentary minutiae and speeches touting one or another company, the Council voted down each possible three-company ranking until the prevailing combination passed 7-6.

City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) held the swing vote on a deadlocked Council. It wasn't until he switched from supporting the staff's Waste Management recommendation that BFI triumphed.

"Somebody had to change [their vote]," Benson said. "Sending it back to committee or delaying it made no sense because we had been going through this for weeks."

He said the city is losing money every day that a new contract is delayed. "The new contract will be much more profitable for the city," Benson said.

The Council's action directs Young to begin negotiations with BFI. Should those negotiations fail to result in a contract, Young and her staff would then negotiate with Waste Management. If those negotiations fail, Young would turn to Eureka.

Supporters of Eureka, which handles St. Paul's recycling, had waged a weeks-long lobbying effort by phone and e-mail. Some Councilmembers echoed arguments on Eureka's behalf. Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) and Gary Schiff (9th Ward) hammered away at the two industry giants, BFI and Waste Management, for checkered pasts that include stock fraud, antitrust suits and numerous Environmental Protection Agency citations.

Benson, the swing vote, said that the trio of bids was excellent. "They all had their arguments," he said.

Eureka appealed to him because he likes the idea of awarding city contracts to local companies and because of Eureka's record of environmental activism, he said.

However, Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents the Central Business District, Loring Park and Elliot Park, said Eureka lacked the financial muscle and operational experience to justify the contract.

"The potential inability for Eureka to provide a performance bond, to have an up-and-operating facility in Minneapolis at this time and the lack of an established track record providing this same service -- they have had the St. Paul contract for recycling for less than a year -- prevented me from choosing Eureka at this time."

Councilmember Barbara Johnson -- in whose 4th Ward BFI's recycling operation is based -- emerged as that company's biggest champion. Johnson cited what she said was a good working relationship with the city as its current recycling vendor. She also hit on a theme Benson said he found "somewhat persuasive": if BFI lost its current contract, approximately 20 of its workers at its Northside recycling center would be let go by the company.

Both Downtown Councilmembers, Goodman and Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward) voted for BFI.

Although many in her Green Party favored the environmentally active Eureka, Johnson Lee cited BFI's community involvement on the Northside, which forms the bulk of her district. She also represents Downtown's North Loop.

Johnson Lee said ethnic diversity among the bidders also played a role in her vote against Eureka.

"One of the things with Eureka is that it's kind of an upstart company and that's great," she said. "To be an upstart company in this time and age, it shouldn't be that hard to find a diverse management team. It's hard to get old businesses to do new things, but when you're a new business, I'm kind of looking for you to set some trends.

"Of course, I'm here to represent many folks, but I'm also here to represent people of color to make sure that we get opportunities. And sometimes, when it's blatant, in my face, I have to speak to it," Johnson Lee said.

Goodman and Johnson Lee were joined by Don Samuels (3rd Ward), Johnson, Robert Lilligren (8th Ward), Benson and Sandra Colvin Roy (12th Ward).

Voting against BFI were Council President Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Zimmermann, Schiff, Nizolek and Barret Lane (13th Ward).

Benson said his initial support went to Waste Management because city staff had repeatedly recommended it. "We've asked them to analyze this, and we've had a consultant analyze it, and we had two staff departments analyze it, and they all came back with the same conclusion. You should give some deference to that, I think," Benson said.