Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Communication Breakdown

A trash hauler on the tipping floor of the Harrisburg incinerator.

A trash hauler on the tipping floor of the Harrisburg incinerator.

We have no doubt that, in making these transactions, the Mayor had the best interests of the City in mind.  Nevertheless, it is always a serious matter when a city official disregards a judicial ruling and yields to Machiavellian precepts in assuming authority which is not vested in him. 

Judge Joseph H. Kleinfelter, May 29, 1997

This is exactly the kind of stuff the current mayor complained about the previous mayor doing. If council would have known about these secret contracts 3 weeks ago, Philbman [sic] would be gone… I was right not to trust him! 

Councilwoman Sandra Reid, Oct. 30, 2013

The RFP for Sanitation Services is under review by the various vendors. At the last meeting Council President Williams asked what vendors had attended the Pre-Bid Conference.

Municipal Financial Recovery Advisory Committee meeting minutes, May 8, 2013

Let me just say this Mr. Philbin. You did request to do the Power Point two times but we were so inundated, we had so much on the agenda… I do apologize. 

Council President Wanda Williams, Oct. 30, 2013

At some point in early 2014, the majority of Harrisburg’s trash will cease to be collected by employees in the city’s department of public works. Instead, it will be collected by employees of Republic Services, a Fortune 500 company and the second-largest solid waste management company in the United States.

Whether you know this, and whether you view this as a much-needed influx of competence and capital or a bit of behind-the-scenes skullduggery by the mayor and her administration, depends on how closely you’ve been paying attention. And to whom.

Earlier this week, the chair of City Council’s public works committee, Sandra Reid, tipped off a reporter at abc27 that the negotiation of the contract with Republic might not be above board. The station ran the story, under the headline “Are big money contracts being covered up in Harrisburg?”, on Oct. 29. “When I ask specific questions,” Reid says on camera, “I don’t get any answers. And I’m wondering, what are we hiding?” The story quotes Reid saying that residents’ trash fees will “undoubtedly” go up if collection is privatized.

By council’s legislative session Wednesday night, the sense of betrayal had spread to Reid’s colleagues. A few minutes into a presentation by Bob Philbin, the chief operating officer, and Kevin Hagerich, the director of public works, council members were ready to vent their displeasure. “This whole process lacks some common courtesy to City Council,” Eugenia Smith said. “I’m a little shocked and appalled on how this contract is surfacing.”

Kelly Summerford expressed surprise that the union president had apparently not objected to the loss of union jobs. Wanda Williams noted that council was “not aware as far as what has been happening with the negotiations with the employees,” and requested that she be invited to every future meeting of the committee negotiating the contract. And Bruce Weber, after an exasperated sigh, blasted the mayor’s administration and the receiver’s team for being “horrible at communicating the fact that there was a significant change to what is essentially a utility that will be coming down the pipeline very quickly.” He wondered about the rush to complete the deal, which has no financial bearing on the rest of the recovery plan, and demanded the process “stop and reverse course immediately.”

To the likely frustration of Hagerich and Philbin, the question of whether trash privatization is actually good for the city went largely unaddressed. That question will be more prominent on November 7, when the administration, representatives from Republic, and members of the receiver’s team will appear before council. Before getting into the communication breakdown, though, it’s worth pointing out the evidence in favor of the contract.

In the first place, as Philbin has already said, on television and before council, the new contract should save the city around $900,000 each year. Furthermore, the possibility of contracting out trash collection is not new. The original receiver’s plan, from February 2012, suggested partial privatization as a way to improve efficiency and access upgraded equipment that the city could not afford. Most municipalities around Harrisburg already have private contracts for trash services, and Hagerich, acting on behalf of the mayor, researched several of these arrangements to help craft the city’s request for proposals. And according to Harrisburg Authority Chairman Bill Cluck, who also advised the city on its request, the arrangement with Republic is deliberately designed to incentivize increased recycling.

None of these facts quite mattered Wednesday night, though, because the dispute was not really about trash. It was, instead, a chance to revisit one of Harrisburg’s time-honored traditions: antipathy between the mayor and council.

The particular struggle here, over who has the power to negotiate contracts, has been unambiguously settled in the courts. In 1989, in Moore v. Reed, the Commonwealth Court ruled that Mayor Stephen Reed had overstepped his executive function by entering into a contract with the Senators baseball team. “The authority to negotiate a valid and binding contract for a municipality is vested in the City Council,” the court wrote. In 1997, in a case concerning the allocation of funds from the sale of the city’s water system, the court upheld the ruling in Moore, maintaining that the city code “limits the Mayor’s function in the contractual process to ‘ministerial duties’ and does not embrace the negotiation process.” (Reed, during his defense, continued to hold that Moore was “wrongly decided.”)

In one sense, then, council is correct: its negotiating right has been violated. Part of the presentation on Wednesday included a timeline for implementation, and a letter has apparently already been delivered to city workers, explaining their options for continued employment at Republic. As Reid observed, that sounds like “a finalization of a contract, not a ‘middle-of-negotiating’ of this contract.” Council’s vote on the agreement is still required, but in the meantime they’ve tasked Hess, the city solicitor, with writing an opinion on council’s proper role.

As to the intimations of mayoral “secrecy,” however, council’s position is less credible. The request for proposals to privatize trash hauling was announced in March last year, at a press conference covered by local media. Since then, the receiver’s team has released updates on the proposal process at every single meeting of their advisory committee—a committee of which Williams, council’s president, is a member, and whose meetings are open to the public. The minutes of those meetings are available on the receiver’s website, and they show that Williams was frequently absent and neglected to send a replacement.

In short, council knew this was happening. And if they’d been paying closer attention, they’d have known the negotiations they are now clamoring to be part of had started a month ago without them. (Meeting minutes for Oct. 9: “Contract negotiations are under way with Republic Services…”) That’s not to excuse the mayor for poor communication. Nor does it invalidate the question of whether the administration has undertaken duties that are properly council’s. But it does undermine Reid’s insinuation about what the mayor is “hiding.”

In the wake of financial crisis, and under the terms of receivership, the procedures of city governance have been thrown into confusion. That’s partly due to the legal implications of state oversight, which remain a matter of controversy. And it’s partly due to the extraordinary workload that the receiver, council, and the administration all bear, which allows things to slip by unnoticed, even when they’re publicly aired.

But it’s also a consequence—familiarly, regrettably, and avoidably—of the persistent lack of communication between the mayor and council. On Wednesday night, council laid this at the door of the mayor, and not without reason. She has squabbled with council over the extent of her powers almost since the moment she was elected. (She has also regularly skipped both their meetings and the receiver’s advisory meetings, preferring to communicate through delegates, which may go a long way towards explaining the frequent disputes.)

In this case, though, council shares the blame. If privatization matters so much now, it should have mattered seven months ago, when the process to privatize started. This late in the game, after plenty of opportunities to get involved, it’s irresponsible to charge the mayor with concealment, and to rile up residents with an unfounded claim that they’ll be worse off with Republic.

The team of receiver William Lynch, for its part, is hopeful the matter will be resolved. “We’d certainly be in favor of anything that’s more inclusive of city council,” said Cory Angell, a spokesman for the receiver’s office. He acknowledged that the receiver, if need be, could take matters to court, but said that option was “not even being considered right now.”

Lynch’s preference, he said, was to open lines of communication and make sure all parties are comfortable. “Coming to some sort of common ground is more effective,” Angell said. “We’re better off sitting down and talking it out.”

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