More money for lawyers: Council to vote on $200K more for landfill contract renegotiations

  • Ramzi Mansour

  • Elizabeth Strance

Two years into negotiations with garbage giant Waste Management Inc., county attorneys say they’re running out of money for outside legal counsel, and they’re coming to the County Council to ask for more.

The council in 2019 approved $300,000 for a private attorney to help renegotiate the contract, a lopsided agreement with no termination date approved by a former council and signed almost 30 years ago by then Mayor Stephen Yamashiro.

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Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance said the money “is anticipated to be exhausted by the middle of May, if not earlier,” and she’s asking the council to approve another $200,000.

Resolution 125, authorizing the additional spending, states that “significant progress” has been made in the renegotiation. It’s on the County Council’s 9 a.m. Wednesday agenda for its first and only vote.

The original contract anticipated Waste Management would hire its own workers to run the landfill. But the Hawaii Supreme Court, in the precedent-setting 1997 ruling, Konno v. County of Hawaii, said government cannot turn over to the private sector work that is “customarily and historically provided by civil servants.”

The lawsuit was filed by the United Public Workers union, which had 10 employee members who at the time worked at the county landfill in Kealakehe, which was being closed.

The ruling meant the county had to continue to pay salaries and benefits for the landfill workers, while still paying Waste Management a tipping fee for each ton of waste dumped there.

“We just gave them everything,” then-Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski said of the 1992 contract in asking for the original money for negotiations two years ago.

Telephone messages left with Waste Management’s Hawaii media contact were not returned by press time Thursday.

Environmental Management Director Ramzi Mansour, who came in with Mayor Mitch Roth in December, said it’s important to maintain continuity as the negotiations progress.

“We have an existing agreement with the special counsel that has the experience in working with us on this particular contract,” Mansour said in a statement. “For the sake of efficiency and cost savings, our goal is to ensure continuity in the legal strategy of the negotiations under the new administration.”

“There are no reasons to spin the wheels,” Mansour added, referring to what could be a steep and expensive learning curve bringing new lawyers up to speed.

Environmental Management officials predict the Puuanahulu landfill has enough room for 150 years worth of garbage, even with the entire island’s rubbish being sent there.

And contract costs continue to rise. The county paid Waste Management $2.9 million in fiscal year 1993-94, a figure that escalated to $5.5 million in 2010-11 and has spiked to $12.2 million this year.

Renegotiating the contract is a priority for Georjean Adams, chairwoman of the Environmental Management Commission and a member of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee.

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She said renegotiating the contract is the perfect opportunity for the county to rethink how it handles its waste, especially with Waste Management’s corporate office becoming increasingly involved in sustainable materials management.

“It is very important that we have a contract with Waste Management Hawaii that provides incentive for environmentally sound diversion of waste from the West Hawaii Sanitary Landfill,” Adams said Thursday in a statement. “We should not continue to be bound by the old funding philosophy of guaranteeing a minimum amount of waste to be landfilled. This kind of ‘flow control’ mindset perversely limits entrepreneurial opportunities for reuse and recycling.”

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