Cincinnati, OH

"Pissing match" stymies Solid Waste Subcommittee selection

The Cincinnati Post

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Commissioner Driehaus, Chair of the Solid Waste Policy Committee, in "pissing match" over nonprofits on subcommittee.CR Davis, videographer, The Cincinnati Post

"Instead of progress, it's become a total pissing match," said the director of Child Advocacy for Rights and Equity, Inc., the organization leading the fight for commissioner oversight and district rules. The Oxford Dictionary defines a "pissing match" as "a contest or rivalry in which the main concern of the parties involved is the conspicuous demonstration of superiority." She continues, "They are controlling the free flow of information from the department to the public in order to block progress. It's a battle between the public demanding a new direction for the county versus 20 years of inaction favoring landfill owners."

C.A.R.E. isn't the only group being excluded from advancing this initiative. A half dozen people are vying for a voice on the newly created 7-member Solid Waste Rules Subcommittee: advocacy groups, environmentalists, minorities, and women have been largely cut from the subcommittee by the leadership in the county Environmental Services department.

Brad Johnson, Director of Environmental Services, and Michelle Balz, Solid Waste Manager have been running interference for almost 6 months to prevent a disruption to the status quo. The status quo is a county-city-township policy that provides landfill operators carte blanche control in setting standards for the entire district. That means - no rules, no standards, no criterion on the siting of landfills.

From day 1, the Environmental Services division has obstructed the effort to bring more oversight to the district through rule-making and commissioner authorities. Back in April, Child Advocacy for Rights & Equity, Inc., (C.A.R.E.), brought the issue to the forefront. Instead of embracing the newly discovered information to effectuate change, the department initiated actions to silence the issue. When confronted on the lack of policy and rules, Michelle Balz, who manages the solid waste policy committee, said, "You don't want to get on my bad side."

She meant it.

Two days after making that threat, Balz canceled C.A.R.E.'s presentation to the policy committee. Balz claimed that "my committee" doesn't know anything about this stuff and that she needed time to, "get my committee up to speed". This is the public's committee, not hers. It was later learned that in the 2 months before the re-scheduled presentation, Balz had not provided her committee with any information to "bring them up to speed."

It was a stall tactic: deny and delay.

The next stall tactic was to send the question of what authority does the policy committee have in promulgating rules, designations, and siting criteria for landfills in Hamilton County. It took almost 3 months for the prosecutor's office to respond. The opinion was so limited in scope that it provided no real direction to the committee or the public. Furthermore, the staff refused to even give the policy committee members a copy of the opinion. Instead, staff wrote up a 1 paragraph summary of the opinion and denied the committee members access to their own legal counsel as provided by law.

C.A.R.E. suggested to administrative and Driehaus' office that the committee request a presentation from the Ohio EPA's legal department to explain to the committee and the Board of Commissioners, in detail, their respective breadth of authority and scope of responsibilities. That suggestion was refused.

Despite the time-sensitive nature of the issue relating to the approval of at least 3 permits to increase landfill dumping in the county since the issue was first presented, Commissioner Denise Driehaus, as chair of the committee, refused to put the issue on the policy committee's meeting agenda in September. She also refused to allow a presentation to the whole Board of Commissioners. Driehaus and the administrative staff at the county and in the Environmental Services department made every effort to paint the issue as fool-hearty and limited communication on the issue at every opportunity.

Balz went so far as to attempt to prohibit the public from having any communications with the policy committee without going through her first. She sent an email to C.A.R.E. in June informing them that the committee wanted all communications to go through her office, not directly to the committee members. Two such members said they didn't, and wouldn't, agree with that. One being "Raj" Rajagopal, a township trustee who said, "You are one of my constituents. I would never say that."

Thanks to 3 members of the policy committee exercising due diligence, they concluded that C.A.R.E. had raised a valid and important issue and upon learning that the chair nor administration was going to put the issue on the agenda, sent a memo to the entire committee requesting that the agenda be amended and that the issue of rules is thoroughly vetted. They also signified their support for C.A.R.E.'s initiative by submitting some rules they want to be implemented.

The committee wasn't too pleased, but they amended the agenda. The administration notified C.A.R.E. that the agenda had been changed, but failed to include in a public record request a copy of the memo. Rumpke's representative on the policy committee gave expected, robust opposition to any rulemaking. Larry Riddle stated that "staff said we have no authority." Greg Kesterman, rebutted, "I have read the emails from (C.A.R.E.) over the last month or so, and she has clearly raised important issues..." With that, the chair called for a vote and the resolution to create a Rules Subcommittee was established. Balz was given authority to compile a subcommittee and get the process of proposing rules for adoption by the county commissioners began.

However, in another obstructive move, Balz and her supervisor, Brad Johnson, devised a subcommittee heavy with government employees. C.A.R.E. was denied a seat despite leading on this previously unknown or withheld authority of the committee. No environmental groups were seated and nor public citizens impacted by landfills. The subcommittee was totally stacked to effectuate a pre-ordained outcome.

C.A.R.E. published the administration's attempt to stack the subcommittee and an email campaign ensued. Protests flooded in to administration demanding better representation on this subcommittee. Under immense public pressure, the administration had no choice but to reconstitute the subcommittee.

They also instituted means to block the public from obtaining interim information on who they were now considering for appointment to the committee in order to avoid public scrutiny. They stopped answering phone calls and emails. They instituted a formal records request policy intended to deny and delay the receipt of documents related to their decision-making process. In their zest to establish this policy, they provided the public with information related to the Freedom of Information Act, F.O.I.A., not Ohio's Public Records Act. Freedom of Information Act requests only pertain to federal agencies, not state. They also required that citizens must disclose personal information in order to obtain records. This is against the law. You do not have to disclose who you are, where you live, etc to acquire public records. In fact, you can not be required to use a form nor to put it in writing. The sole purpose in implementing this new policy is clearly to deny and delay timely information to the public.

C.A.R.E. simply seeks an open, transparent, and well-represented subcommittee to vet the issue and recommend sound, practical and fair rules for the Board of Commissioners to use in exercising their power - and their duty - to county residents in approving or denying waste facility operations. "It is very concerning that some elected officials and staff are so intent on evading their responsibility to protect the community as a whole regarding landfills throughout the county."

Last week, the city health department approved the re-opening of the Elda Landfill as a garbage transfer facility. If the 1 rule pertaining to oversight authority had been approved 6 months ago when posed by C.A.R.E., that operation would have required the permission of the Board of County Commissioners. Due to these deny and delay tactics, the residents had no voice, no rights, and no rules to protect them.

(It is noteworthy that, no MSM will cover this issue despite its significant importance. The Cincinnati Enquirer merely did a front-page fluff piece extolling the virtues of Rumpke. It is only through the efforts of The Cincinnati Post and Newsbreak's original content forum that these issues are publicly aired.)

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