Garbage and the gavel

Trash contract approved, but mayor and council member clash

by Tom Coombe
A seemingly routine action item became anything but Tuesday night at City Hall, with garbage pickup in Ely igniting some trash talk at the council table.
Following through on a decision made at a special meeting just seven days earlier, the council approved two garbage collection contracts with G Men Environmental Services, for both residential and commercial service.
But the vote came only after protests from council member Angela Campbell, and several sharp exchanges between Campbell and mayor Chuck Novak.
At one point, Novak disgustedly and forcefully slammed his gavel to curtail debate, when Campbell continued to s peak after a non-debatable motion was made to call for a vote.
Earlier in the meeting, Campbell asked council members “to wait until I finish” before addressing her comments and took issue with Novak’s role in presiding over meetings, citing the city’s “weak mayor, strong council” form of government and contending “no individual council member holds specific administrative power.”
Campbell also clearly stirred unrest with her assertions that the city was violating the law and not following its own code by contracting with the G Men for garbage service.
According to Campbell, city code mandates that the city “provide for collection and disposal of all refuse.”
Campbell claimed that as much as 50 percent of Ely residents and businesses don’t use the G Men for garbage collection and alleged “The city of Ely is still required to serve those citizens to take care of the garbage.”
“This is the code right off the website,” said Campbell.
Novak, who has feuded publicly with Campbell at a series of council meetings this year, disagreed with Campbell’s conclusion and questioned “did you discuss this with the city attorney for a legal opinion?”
Kelly Klun, Ely’s city attorney was not present at Tuesday’s meeting and it appears she has not been asked to render an opinion on Campbell’s claims.
Both Novak and Harold Langowski, the city’s clerk/treasurer and operations director, disputed any contention that the city is required to pick up trash from its residents.
Novak conceded that city code may be “out of date,” harkening back to a time when the city collected garbage from alleys.
Langowski said the city provides a garbage service by contracting with a private firm, calling it a voluntary system.
“It is provided and has been provided to 100 percent of the citizens,” said Langowski.
“The interpretation of providing the pick up, it doesn’t say it has to be public works,” said Novak. “We provide opportunity for trash collection. It is being offered to every resident and every business.”
“That’s not how I understand it,” Campbell said. “I’m just trying to respect the law... This is the law. We have not changed it.”
The push clearly exasperated council member Heidi Omerza, who interjected “what is your point, Angela?”
Omerza said Ely residents, including herself, who choose not have their trash collected by the G Men and instead haul it themselves to the landfill outside of town.
“We are voting on a contract,” said Omerza, who pressed to end the debate and call the question.
Omerza’s motion to end debate, which led to more comments from Campbell and Novak’s use of the gavel, failed to gain the two-thirds needed to bring discussion to a close.
The matter was soon voted on anyway, with council member Paul Kess suggesting common ground could be found.
Kess said Campbell made a point that city code could conflict with current practice and that the council could later move to rectify that.
“I think our intent is to get a sanitation contract in place by the end of the month,” said Kess.
The contract remains subject to approval by the G Men and gives the incumbent provider a four-year extension for residential service and a one-year contract for commercial pickups.
The “bifurcated contract,” appears to meet the concerns of several council members, who openly called for the city to seek bids from other vendors who may provide commercial garbage pickup.
The deal, negotiated by Klun and counsel for the G Men, scrapped earlier provisions calling for a series of three five-year contracts.
It also addresses the council’s concerns about commercial pickup, although it allows the G Men to collect a $50 surcharge for Saturday pickups.
The garbage issue has been on the table for much of the year, with the city’s sanitation committee serving notice and recommending that the G Men’s contract not be renewed.
Had a contract agreement not been reached, the city would have had no garbage service beginning Nov. 1.
Also Tuesday, the council gave approval to the annual Christmas Parade and Tree Lighting Ceremony, slated for Nov. 30, and agreed that the city would provide in-kind services.
Novak also highlighted recent reports showing a 14 percent drop in lodging tax revenues so far this year.
While he questioned whether the dip will be that severe once final totals are in, noting that many establishments had not reported their tax receipts, he conceded that tourism traffic in the area is likely down.
“The most I’ve seen it bump up (once all establishments report) is three or four percent, so there is a concern here,” said Novak.