By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward’s top city and county managers regularly meet in secret to discuss public business, formulate policy and even negotiate contracts.
Five of them currently are hammering out a $1 billion contract for waste disposal for much of the county with the help of a single company, trash giant Waste Management, which wants the work. They are doing this without taking any public discussion or comment
A no bid-deal like that would affect disposal rates for most of the county’s residents and businesses.
When two Broward Bulldog reporters tried to attend Thursday’s Broward City County Management Association (BCCMA) meeting in Sunrise they were told to leave.
Questioned before the doors were shut, association president Bruce Loucks, the city manager in Cooper City, said the meeting was closed to the public.
“We’re not elected officials,” said Loucks, referring to the open meeting requirements of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law. “This is a manager’s association.”
Asked again if reporters could attend on the public’s behalf, Loucks said flatly, “No. You’re not coming in.”
The Sunshine Law does not generally apply to private organizations like the low-profile BCCMA. Still, the law’s broad access requirements have been held to apply when such groups are delegated governmental functions or play an “integral” role in the decision-making process, according to a 2009 Attorney General’s legal opinion.
Broward Bulldog filed public records requests with several cities today in an attempt to determine if the managers have crossed the line
GOVERNMENT OUT OF THE SUNSHINE?
The managers’ meeting was a catered luncheon at the Sunrise Civic Center’s Grand Ballroom, a glass and stone structure surrounded by decorative fountains with rooms featuring crystal chandeliers and plush chairs. It is not known who paid for the event, but at least one city employee – from Parkland – helped check-in attendees.
Other city managers that showed up included Lee Feldman of Fort Lauderdale, Bruce Moeller of Sunrise, John Stunson of Oakland Park and John Flint of Weston. Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry was also present.
The BCCMA is a private association whose dues-paying members run Broward’s municipalities. Those eligible for membership include city managers, other municipal officers and corporate executives “engaged in a business relationship with a local government,” according to its web site.
The association’s meeting agenda was confidential, and its discussions were private. But its web site identifies a dozen “key” economic and political issues including development, the escalating costs of providing police and fire services, and waste management.
Trash disposal has been a recent focus, according to records made public by other governmental bodies.
For example, minutes from the most recent meeting of the county’s Resource Recovery Board show that Weston City Manager appeared before the board to describe how the association is working to craft a contract that may be used to seal the immense, no-bid trash disposal deal with Waste Management.
Such a pact could squeeze out a competitor who has offered lower rates that would be less costly to businesses and residents.
The company’s Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary has had a decades-long monopoly over waste disposal for about 80 percent of Broward’s cities. That monopoly is set to expire next year.
“The city manager’s group met with Wheelabrator on a number of occasions, and have reached an agreement, with the exception of two points: they have not agreed upon a price and they have yet to select a term,” the minutes say.
INSIDERS PLAYING THE SYSTEM
The RRB, as it is known in the industry, is the governing body of Broward’s Solid Waste Disposal District. Its nine members are elected officials from eight cities and the county.
Flint has been trying to extend Wheelabrator’s contract behind closed doors despite attempts by a competitor, Sun/Bergeron, to offer competitive bids.
He told the board the managers’ association was preparing to circulate the draft agreement negotiated with Wheelabrator to “city officials throughout the county.”
Flint bristled when asked before Thursday’s city manager association meeting meeting if the new no-bid waste contract would be discussed in private again that day.
“I have nothing to say,” he said before adding, “I don’t know yet.”
UPSETTING BUSINESS AS USUAL
The county commission in December 2010 rejected a 10-year, $1.5 billion no-bid proposal with Wheelabrator after cities said the negotiated rates were too high.
Outrage over how that deal was pushed led Miramar to go out for bids on its own. It received lower prices. The low bidder was Sun/Bergeron, but the city has yet to award a contract that other cities might want to piggyback on. Broward Bulldog has learned Miramar commissioners will convene a special meeting about the bid on March 20 at 6 p.m.
The managers’ talks with Wheelabrator have been going on quietly for more than a year. The idea was to develop an alternative in case Miramar’s bid faltered.
Flint told the Resource Recovery Board in January the new contract is an improvement on the original Wheelabrator proposal because it eliminates risk to the county.
For reasons that have not been explained, Sun/Bergeron was excluded from that process and a company representative was turned away from an earlier association meeting.
“What they are doing is not open government,” said Phil Medico, lawyer for Sun/Bergeron.