SLO County's Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) started its Aug. 11 board meeting in a state of shock.
On Aug. 10, the SLO County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to do what its conservative majority threatened to do several months prior: to part ways with the agency that manages solid, hazardous, and green waste and recycling for the county, its seven cities, and some community services districts. The very same day, the IWMA's recently hired interim executive director, Paavo Ogren, who was brought in after the previous executive director's June resignation to clean up the agency's financial and operational practices, resigned from his position.
"I'm shocked to hear that Paavo did this, but I think we do need some expertise, and I feel it might be good to consider doing some kind of abbreviated search to see if we can find someone who would be willing to work with our organization through this difficult time," IWMA board member and SLO City Councilmember Jan Marx said during the Aug. 11 meeting.
The question was who that person would be. Should the IWMA open up a search to find a new interim director or could longtime employee and current IWMA Deputy Director Patti Toews do her job and the executive director job and help negotiate with the county over its impending departure from the IWMA?
"I agree with the fact that we probably need someone to lead, to do the shift," said Morro Bay City Councilmember Jeff Heller. "We have budgetary implications, we have a substantial budget issue to talk about, and we have a substantial membership change in the JPA [Joint Powers Authority] that we need to discuss."
Toews weighed in, saying that whoever the IWMA hired needs to be ready to take on an agency with a history of controversy and difficult decisions ahead.
In early August, the SLO County District Attorney's Office filed embezzlement and destruction of public records charges against once IWMA board secretary Carolyn Grace Goodrich for actions alleged to have taken place between 2014 and 2018. In 2018, then Executive Director Bill Worrell resigned the day before the IWMA's board voted to place him on administrative leave in response to a private investigator's forensic audit alleging that Worrell and others misused agency funds. The conclusions of that audit sparked the SLO County District Attorney's Office investigation.
Since then, IWMA board members have battled over plastic bag, straw, and polystyrene bans and the conservative members of the Board of Supervisors questioned whether the IWMA's board can act as a legislative body. Currently, the IWMA is in the midst of trying to tighten and rearrange its budget, increase its rates, prepare for the state's new upcoming green/food waste mandates that are estimated to cost an extra $2.3 million per year, and renegotiate the JPA.
"It needs to be somebody who's not afraid of controversy, as some of the other board members have said. We need to find somebody that's resilient, who has an incredibly thick skin, frankly," Toews said.
Members of the county Board of Supervisors abstained from voting on several issues discussed at the IWMA meeting, leaving the 13-member board with five votes in favor of looking for a permanent executive director, three voting no, four abstaining, and one absent. At the end of the vote, some questioned whether the board had a sufficient majority to carry the vote.
Acting IWMA legal counsel Linda Sommers Smith, who was filling in for Jeff Minnery because he's on medical leave, responded by saying, "Oh gosh, I don't know." The board ultimately decided that there were enough votes to start looking for a permanent executive director.
County supervisors also abstained from voting on how the authority should proceed in negotiating with the county over its impending departure from the IWMA. Several expressed concern over not wanting to violate the Brown Act by discussing Board of Supervisors business on the IWMA dais.
Marx didn't hold back her criticism, calling the decision to part ways a bad decision and accusing the county's conservative majority of wanting to "claw back some of the assets." She stated that there was an inherent conflict of interest with having the entirety of the Board of Supervisors on the IWMA board while it decides how to split with the county and move forward with continuing to provide service to the remaining member cities and community services districts.
"I think everything would have to be done in writing," Marx said. "The degree of disrespect and anger that was expressed during the Board of Supervisors meeting, feels to me that there's not going to be a mutually collaborative—like, it's not going to be a friendly—divorce."
On Aug. 10, the Board of Supervisors voted to separate itself from the IWMA (with 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg and 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson voting no) rather than hold off for 90 days while the IWMA works to renegotiate the terms of its JPA—a document that 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton and 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold take issue with.
During that meeting, Compton said she felt that the county's vote was diluted on the IWMA's 13-member board, that the JPA didn't give the power to regulate, and that the agency needed more oversight. She questioned the IWMA's contract bidding standards, its lack of billing records, and spoke about the forensic audit's findings, adding that with the bribery allegations against late 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill, corruption is the biggest issue facing the county right now.
"Corruption, in my mind, is the No. 1 issue going on," Compton said. "This organization is so corrupt that to me, it can't be reformed. ... When you have this much corruption in the past, look at all the money that's been wasted. ... There's no checks and balances with this."
Gibson called the decision to leave the IWMA "a failure of governance." He countered Compton's points by saying that since the 2018 forensic audit, the IWMA has taken steps to try and fix some of its weaknesses and give more oversight to the staff that runs the agency.
"Feelings get hurt, egos get bruised, and I just think that it would be a much better action for this county, for this Board of Supervisors, to dig in," Gibson said. "To improve and make stellar, the results of the IWMA." Δ