Taylor, Bartlett each deserve blame for trash mess (UPDATED)

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CORRECTION: I am informed that my inference concerning Cheryl Cohenour's service on the TARE board, based on frequent news reports mentioning her as a board member prior to 2011, was incorrect. Taylor campaign research director Joey Wignarajah contacted me (directly this time) and provided me with TARE board minutes documenting Cheryl Cohenour's 2008 departure and 2011 return.

In 2008, Cohenour was replaced on the TARE board by Taylor's appointment of Michael Pierce. The City Council confirmed Pierce's appointment on October 30, 2008. Cohenour was brought back to the board by Bartlett Jr to replace Stephen Schuller and was confirmed by the Council on March 3, 2011.

The TARE minutes, as far as I can tell, are not available online, and the City Council agenda archives continue to be unsearchable (but I'm working to change that). I found no news reports of Cohenour's departure or her return. Wignarajah said he had to file an open records request to get copies of the TARE minutes.

The reason for Cohenour's departure in 2008 would affect the way we interpret her return in 2011. Did she step aside on her own initiative? Did Taylor decide not to reappoint Cohenour because Taylor disagreed with her views on the new trash service? Or did Taylor not reappoint Cohenour because she was unlikely to win confirmation from a City Council unhappy with the proposed new approach to trash service?

I have revised this article in light of this new information. Notwithstanding the interruption in Cohenour's service, it still appears to be the case that four of the seven TARE members (Anderson, Berlin, Bowles, Pierce) who approved the bid documents -- the requirements for the new trash service, the basis upon which proposals were evaluated and a winner selected -- were holdovers from the Taylor administration. Between the time the bid documents were approved and the contract was awarded, Bartlett Jr appointed Councilor David Patrick to replace one of the four, Beverly Anderson, the fallout of a series of disputes involving board members and contractors. There is no question that the essential features of the new trash service were defined and in use for the pilot program that was conducted while Taylor was mayor and an ex officio board member.

A few weeks ago, word reached me that the Kathy Taylor camp was displeased with a blog entry in which I opined that the former Tulsa mayor deserved an equal share of the blame with current mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr for our transition from a trash system that Tulsans overwhelmingly liked to one that has had numerous problems.

Here's what I wrote:

Whoever wins, we'll still be stuck with the complicated and messy trash system imposed upon us by board members that Kathy appointed and Dewey re-appointed (or didn't bother to replace).

The counterclaim from the Taylor camp came in the form of an anonymous Word document that bore (in the document's properties) the name of Joey Wignarajah, research director for the Taylor campaign. The document claimed that my assertion about who appointed the board members was incorrect.

There are seven TARE board members: The mayor (or his proxy) and six appointees. They are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council to serve a three-year term.

An appointee continues to serve until a replacement is appointed, even if his term has expired. The mayor can keep a member in office without the council's confirmation by simply refusing to reappoint the current member or to appoint a replacement. While we passed a charter amendment a few years ago to allow the council to make an appointment if the mayor delays for more than two months, the City Attorney opined that that provision didn't apply to authorities like TARE which were created by state law. Bartlett Jr chose not to make new appointments to replace three of Taylor's appointees on the board (Bowles, Powell, Schuller) until the major decisions about the new trash service were made.

Bartlett maintains that he wants to keep the three members because of their experience and the major service decisions that are looming for the trash board as its long-term hauling contracts expire.

In July 2010, the City Council had rejected Bartlett Jr's reappointment of Bowles, Powell, and Schuller, all of whom were Taylor holdovers. The Councilors wanted new board members who would be responsive to citizen desires to keep what they liked about our trash service.

The document from the Taylor campaign acknowledges that Steve Berlin, William Bowles, and Michael Pierce were her appointees, but it cites Cheryl Cohenour as originally a Bartlett Jr appointee with a starting date of service of 3/4/11.

I recalled that Cohenour had served on the TARE board at least as early as 1998. She was Anna Falling's leading antagonist during the controversy over trash rates and Falling's attempt at a free recycling pilot program. Based on Cohenour's departure at the expiration of her term in 2013, her $500 contribution to Taylor's 2006 campaign, her frequent appearance as a key TARE board member in news stories during the Taylor administration, and no news reports of her departure or return, I assumed that Cohenour's service on the board was continuous, and that Taylor must have either reappointed her or allowed her to continue without reappointment. That turned out not to be the case. Taylor did not reappoint Cohenour in 2008 and instead appointed Michael Pierce.

So it's true that, when the new contract was awarded, only three of the seven members of the TARE board had been appointed by Taylor.

More significant, however, is the date when the request for proposals (RFP) was issued. At that point the shape of the new system -- defined by the requirements that the winning bidder would have to meet -- was set in stone. At that point four of the seven board members (Anderson, Berlin, Bowles, Pierce), a majority, had been appointed or retained by Taylor. Randy Sullivan and Cheryl Cohenour were the only new Bartlett appointees (plus City Manager Jim Twombly as the mayor's ex officio designee).

It could be argued that the groundwork for the bid documents was laid while there were even more Taylor appointees still on board. Sullivan had been confirmed only six weeks before the bid documents were issued, replacing Taylor appointee Steve Powell, and Sullivan and the rest of the board declined to change the bid documents in response to a request by the City Council to have bidders also include a price for continuing traditional trash service (twice-a-week, customer-supplied bins). The implication is that the process of preparing the bid documents began much earlier in the year, and Sullivan's arrival didn't herald any major changes in TARE policy.

Going back even further, the fundamental features of the new trash system were well-formed over three years earlier, during the Taylor administration. The pilot program for the new system was launched by the TARE board while Taylor was mayor and an ex officio member of the board (either in person or through her designee). A November 5, 2007, story shows that all the basic elements were in place -- mechanically lifted, standard city-issued carts, and half the service for nearly the same cost.

Eventually, a plan to change all twice-a-week service routes to the new once-a-week service by 2011 is expected to be presented to the council.

"I really think this is the future of Tulsa's trash collection," said Joe Moran, chairman of the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy....

Each residence was provided with one 96-gallon, wheeled trash cart and an 18-gallon recycling bin. Smaller sizes of carts also were available.

The monthly curbside service fee for the program is $12.52, which includes recycling pickup regardless of whether the customer chooses to recycle....

Cheryl Cohenour, who heads up the authority's long-range planning committee, said it has been the panel's goal to adopt a uniform service across the city.

"We're going to have to do a lot of education to get people prepared," she said. "Change can be difficult. But these survey results show it's possible."

A February 1, 2008, story shows that the Council was expressing concern that the pilot program was not producing enough savings to the ratepayer to justify the added inconvenience, and that the trash board understood that there were political issues surrounding the changes:

Some councilors have argued that the program, which has converted five routes to once-a-week, cart-based service that includes recycling, should provide a better savings.

The program's monthly curbside rate is $12.37, compared with the normal $13.44 rate for the twice-a-week service without recycling....

The trash board is looking to hire a management and engineering consulting firm, R.W. Beck, to help explore its options for a uniform trash service across the city and to look at the long-term savings that could be realized by switching Tulsa's standard service....

Board members hope to have some information in hand before the end of May to help persuade councilors to continue the pilot program.

"That's going to be a major political hurdle for us to overcome," said Joe Moran, the trash board's chairman.

A May 7, 2008, story has Cohenour urging the council to extend the pilot program another six months, with the council dubious about cutting service in half while only cutting $1.07 a month off of the rates.

In September 2009, Taylor appointed the Mayor's Task Force on Refuse and Recycling. A year later, the task force Taylor appointed recommended a trash service with substantially the same features that were ultimately included in the new system.

Throughout Kathy Taylor's term of office from April 2006 through November 2009, questions and concerns about the new system were being raised, and Taylor could have used her power of appointment and her seat on the board to shift it to a more customer-oriented direction. But she didn't.

Dewey Bartlett Jr had enough time to replace a majority of the TARE board prior to the finalization of the bid documents and to take advantage of his ex officio position on the board to revise the board's plans. Instead, Bartlett Jr expressly chose to keep Taylor appointees on the board while all the important decisions were being made, despite the objections of city councilors.

If you don't like paying twice the price for the service you used to have (or almost the same price for half the service), if you don't like the automated trucks leaving every cart on your block in the middle of the street on trash pickup day, if you don't like mandatory carts with loose lids that let vermin in and odors out, both Kathy Taylor and Dewey Bartlett Jr deserve the blame. Either one of them could have exerted leadership to ensure that the new system retained the features Tulsans liked about the old trash service, but neither did. Both Taylor and Bartlett Jr stood by while an unelected board radically transformed a basic service of local government, over the objections of the citizens.

MORE from the Taylor mayoralty:

Tulsa World (OK) - Wednesday, July 9, 2008: With trash plan canned, carts now in contention:

At a May trash board meeting, member Cheryl Cohenour talked about participants getting to keep the carts and the board reimbursing the independent haulers for the cost.

But since that time, it apparently was decided that the haulers would instead pick up the carts.

The City Council last month signaled the end of the yearlong program, which converted the routes to a once-a-week, cart-based service that included recycling, by allowing it to expire.

The routes this week reverted to the city's standard twice-a-week service.

Councilors expressed frustration about the meager savings experienced by participants and were reluctant to change a service that most residents enjoy.

Curbside collection rates for the pilot program were $12.37 per month compared with the $13.44 per month for the twice-a-week service.

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6 Comments

Graychin said:

OK - we get it. A pox on BOTH houses (Bartlett and Taylor), and on the house of the Council as well. But isn't trying to decide which mayoral candidate deserves more blame than the other a futile exercise?

Here is the RIGHT question: why does Tulsa have a Trash Board in the first place? Is this vital function of city government too boring, too mundane, and/or too much actual hard work to merit the time and attention of elected officials?

If elected officials believe that mugging for the cameras and hogging microphones is more important than keeping up with how well the city is doing its everyday jobs, then Tulsa needs different elected officials.

Graychin said:

This post represents an extraordinary amount of effort to (correctly) drag Kathy Taylor into the trash fiasco. We will wait to learn how Taylor is also largely responsible for the clownish situation with greenwaste and plastic bags - other than her role in appointing some members of the Trash Board.

Is this a "tell"? Is Batesline preparing to endorse the hated-but-Republican Bartlett "Jr" for mayor?

Rather than that Obama-loving Democrat? The one with farfetched but nevertheless nightmarish potential for other elective office?

Bob said:

Your excellent analysis and commentary on TARE and their self-induced trash collection upheaval points out one glaring fact:

Dewey, Jr. and Kathy Taylor are more alike than different in their approach to bigger and costlier local government.

Both agitated for major sales tax increases during their first term of office:

Taylor's River Tax, and Bartlett's Vision2, both of which the voters wisely rejected.

My take on the pre-ordained (and pre-rigged) structure of the new 1X per week trash service contract, with a $13 million investment by the citizens in new plastic, wheeled trash carts, and trash trucks that must burn CNG (with Devon, Chesapeake, Apache, Kaiser-Francis, and ONEOK beneficiaries?), is that the whole sordid deal was done to grow "Green" energy usage (CNG powered trash trucks), as well as create a mandatory re-cycling program akin to just another Nanny State Mandate.

In the process, many small family-owned trash haulers saw their historical livelihoods and small family-owned businesses crushed by a contract rigged to require them to replace their largest capital investment:

Their diesel powered trash trucks.

Graychin, I've been frustrated with both campaigns and their over-the-top attacks on the other side. Previously, I've knocked down Bartlett Jr's claim that Taylor brought Tulsa to the brink of bankruptcy and his claim that she was a bigger spender than he has been. This was an effort to knock down the Taylor campaign's attempt to lay Tulsa's frustrations with the new trash service entirely at Bartlett Jr's feet. Regarding the fiasco with taking green waste to the trash-to-energy plant, I don't think that can be traced back to Taylor, except perhaps indirectly as a consequence of the plan to divert green waste out of the general trash stream, which I suspect does have roots going back to the Taylor administration.

At this point, the only reason I can see to pick one over the other is partisan calculations related to Taylor's future political ambitions, and I'm not sure that works in Bartlett Jr's favor. It may be that the surest way to kill Taylor's chances at higher office is to give her four more years to make people angry at City Hall. At the moment, I think she is benefiting from hazy memories of controversies during her time in office in contrast to fresh memories of Bartlett Jr's turbulent term. The only mayor in my lifetime who went on to higher elective office got there two years after losing re-election as mayor -- Jim Inhofe, who was defeated by Terry Young in 1984, then won the open seat for Congress in 1986.

Why do we have TARE, a public trust, in charge of our trash system? It goes back to the Inhofe administration. They were sold on the idea of a trash-to-energy plant, a way to avoid expected limits on new landfills and to benefit from high energy prices. Because of the required capital outlay to build a trash-to-energy plant, there had to be a long-term revenue stream and thus a multi-year contract with the company that built the plant. Under Oklahoma law, local governments have to create trusts to enter into multi-year contracts. Shortly after the plant was built in the mid '80s, energy prices plummeted, and it was never the boon its proponents expected it to be. We had to pay for an expensive EPA-mandated retrofit in the late '90s, which boosted trash fees.

When the contract with the trash-to-energy plant finally expired, the City Council attempted to bring control of the trash system back to City Hall, but Bartlett Jr didn't agree, nor did the TARE board. Amazingly, the law seems to give TARE veto power over any attempt to shut it down. Now that we have another multi-year contract, necessitated by a trash system requiring a large initial capital outlay (carts, CNG-powered trucks, etc.), it looks like we're stuck with TARE for at least another decade.

Bob said:

Why, oh Why oh WHY don't the local controlling overlords put someone of Michael Bates' acumen, wisdom and integrity on one of the local Boards, Commissions or Authorities that they USE to control Tulsa government, like the TMUA, the TMAPC, or the ubiquitous TARE and thus the local citizenry?

Obviously, they do NOT want him anywhere near their actual levers of power........should we wonder why?

Graychin said:

Thank you for your clear and sensible explanation of why a Trash Board exists. So it all began with the Inhofe Administration and the trash-to-energy plant that the City never owned? Oh well - that's water under the bridge.

It still seems to me that the Mayor and Council have abdicated their responsibilities by ignoring the workings and decisions of the Trash Board. The Mayor (or his designate) is a member of the Trash Board and presumably knowledgeable about what goes on there. Clearly, that isn't happening.

The City Council should take it upon itself to keep current on what is happening in the Tulsa trash system until things are working smoothly again. Perhaps they could demand frequent reports from the Trash Board, and ask hard questions of operational personnel.

The daily paper reported that not even the Trash Board members themselves knew about the greenwaste fiasco until it became public knowledge. What do those folks do besides warm their chairs and eat lunch?

In the case of the Bartlett Administration, I believe the City Manager is the Mayor's designate to serve on the Trash Board. Is there any Mayoral function that Bartlett has not delegated to his City Manager? Right now there is no need for Tulsa to consider a "weak mayor / city manager" form of government - because it has that right now!

(My guess is that Kathy Taylor has no ambitions for service in Washington. It would not surprise me to see her run for governor one of these days - perhaps in 2018. But a Democrat has zero chance of election to statewide office in Oklahoma in the foreseeable future. Less than zero, if that's possible.)

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 8, 2013 3:48 PM.

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