Amid controversy, Houston signs off on $37 million, 20-year recycling deal

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HOUSTON — A $37 million, 20 year recycling deal was approved by city council Wednesday, although questions swirled around the plan, including some saying that the FBI was probing about how the proposal went through.

In addition, hours after the vote, a longtime Houston investigative reporter said he was filing a criminal complaint against Mayor Sylvester Turner in connection with the deal, accusing him of illegally withholding public documents.

“The mayor got what he wanted today, strong-armed some council members and threatened some others to get this deal,” said Wayne Dolcefino, who now runs his own investigative consulting shop. “The mayor wanted this really badly.”

Three council members voted against the deal. One council member who was absent sent a letter to his colleagues that he would have voted against the plan if he had been there.

Turner, though, praised the deal Wednesday, calling the vote a “resounding approval” that “will save taxpayers millions of dollars and accept glass and filmy plastic bags.”

“This was a very important day,” Turner said. “Now we know where we’re heading when it comes to recycling and putting glass back into recycling and plastic, and aluminum.”

Houston had been without glass recycling for some time.

The recycling deal went to Spain-based FCC — Fomento de Construcciones Y Contratas — which Turner said would build a 100,000 square feet “state of the art” facility in Houston, and add 100 new jobs to the city.

For the recycling, taxpayers will pay up to $36.8 million assuming the price for which the company can sell recyclables does not climb steeply.

If the value of recyclables on global markets shoots up, thus increasing FCC’s profits, the city will pay less for the contract, Turner said.

The city already saved $11 million when FCC lowered its price in a second “best and final offer” bidding round and will save more because the city’s contract costs per ton of recyclables are capped, Turner said.

The city has been operating without a cost cap in its current contract with Houston-based Waste Management.

FCC will take over the city’s recycling processing in about 14 months.

The city will then start accepting glass in its green curbside collection containers as well as plastic bags of the kind used in supermarkets and drugstores.

Dolcefino is representing a company that said it was edged out of the competition for the recycling deal. That company, EcoHub, claimed it could have saved the city $40 million.

I give the mayor a D minus in math,” Dolcefino said, “And I give him an F in transparency,”

Turner has refused to release the scoring sheets, or the names of the city employees who chose FCC, Dolcefino said.

The proposed contract with FCC is being kept secret too.

Some documents have been released in fits and starts. Some show that Turner confidante, Maya Ford ignored legal requests to see her records. Other Ford emails show she made allegations of possible ethics violations against city Waste Management Director Harry Hayes.

Turner has long said that the process picking the recycling firm was done ethically.

“I do not even know the people who scored these projects,” he said. “I’m the mayor. I don’t pick the people.”

Dolcefino questioned Turner. 

“I question his transparency,” he said. “I’m accusing him of illegally withholding emails about this deal,” he said. “He should apologize to taxpayers. Every single taxpayer who voted for this deal without making sure the public got to see how the sausage was made, smelly sausage, every single one of those council members deserve to be contested on ethics.”

State District Judge Kristen Hawkins has given City Hall the end of January produce the records asked for by EcoHub, some of which the firm asked for a year ago.

Dolcefino has publicly said the FBI is inquiring in connection with this process.

EcoHub CEO George Gitschel’s initial proposal to the city was called the “One Bin” process.

“One Bin” was a plan to collect all trash, recycling and yard waste in one can and recycle as much as 75 percent of it. The company proposed reducing garbage trucks routes from three to one and putting all trash and recycling in just one bin. EcoHub would then sell the recycling materials for new products.

An email obtained by The Texas Monitor suggests that Gitschel’s firm and his “One-Bin” recycling plan never had much of a chance to win a bid.

Gitschel never put in a bid, saying he was edged out.

Gitschel said EcoHub’s proposed his “One-Bin” plan and his proposed state-of-the-art recycling facilities would eliminate the need for landfills. He said he believes that threatened the trillion-dollar garbage industry that makes the lion’s share of its money off of hauling trash to landfills.

“We all have a lot of fight in us and we’re trying to fight for what’s right for the people who live here, the taxpayers, the citizens,” Gitschel said. “We want to bring jobs, we want to bring economic development, environmental sustainability. What’s so bad about that?”

See the other Texas Monitor reports on the Houston recycling controversy here:

Recycling firm: Delay Houston council vote until bid rigging allegations resolved

Recycling company clinches court win in open records case against Houston

Transparency hearing Tuesday puts city of Houston in spotlight

Lawsuit aims to shake emails loose from Houston City Hall

Houston mayor reverses course on recycling deal

Houston trash deal vote delayed amid questions over transparency, pricing

Houston’s trash deal smells, wants probe into possible bid rigging, recycling inventor says

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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