UPDATE: EcoHub has filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston calling for the release of multiple public records that the city has deemed exempt from disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act.
The complaint, filed in Harris County District Court on August 1, summarizes EcoHub's allegations of unfair and opaque negotiations with Mayor Sylvester Turner's office over a mixed waste processing contract that was dropped last year. Following the realization that the deal was likely off after the city released a new request for proposals in October 2016, EcoHub hired former investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino to look into the matter further. Dolcefino submitted four requests between January and July 2017 that EcoHub's complaint says have not been fully answered due to the city's exemptions claims. The requests include phone records, emails and other information about the current and prior recycling contract negotiations. These requests specifically asked for any communications between Houston's solid waste director and Waste Management or Republic Services.
The company's founder, George Gitschel, announced the lawsuit in a press conference on August 1 and has been actively seeking signatures for an online petition in support of his "One Bin" proposal. In a response to the lawsuit, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, Turner's director of communications said everyone has the right to file allegations and that the city "will respond to the allegations where they were made.”
No updates have been provided on the status of negotiations for the current recycling contract that Turner had initially recommended awarding to FCC Environmental Services. After many questions from Houston City Council members, Turner agreed to reopen the contract for best and final offers from the four initial bidders on July 21. The contract was not on the agenda for the council's most recent meeting on August 2.
- Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's recent decision to select FCC Environmental Services for a proposed $57 million recycling processing contract, since updated to $48.4 million, has led to mounting questions about why the city abandoned previous plans for a mixed waste processing system. While this "One Bin for All" plan from EcoHub was started by his predecessor, Turner's administration gave signs of approval as recently as last year after he took office, as reported by ABC 13 and other outlets.
- EcoHub CEO George Gitschel has now gone public with allegations of an unfair bidding process and potential corruption. According to Gitschel, the EcoHub proposal would have saved Houston $25-40 million in recycling costs and achieved a guaranteed diversion rate of 75% or higher. Gitschel has called on Houston's city attorney and controller to investigate, though so far they have shown no inclination to do so.
- Turner has become very defensive when asked about the One Bin proposal at recent press conferences and maintains that his administration never had any interest in it. He also said that EcoHub could have bid on the most recent recycling contract, though Gitschel counters that the terms were written to exclude his company.
Gitschel has been working to bring the EcoHub mixed waste processing concept to fruition for more than a decade, fighting skepticism from municipalities and what he views as an effort by major industry companies to protect a status quo geared toward disposal over diversion. In 2013, the city of Houston appeared to agree with his ideas and submitted the One Bin concept to win a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. EcoHub later won a city contract to bring this concept to life in 2015. Despite ongoing assurances from Houston officials, the negotiations dragged on for years and outlasted Mayor Annise Parker's administration.
After taking office in January 2016, Turner received a recommendation from city staff to seal the deal but ended up negotiating a short-term contract extension with Waste Management that spring. Then, to Gitschel's surprise, the city put out a new request for proposals for the recycling contract in October 2016 that he said was designed to essentially make EcoHub ineligible for multiple reasons. While Turner has pitched the decision to award that contract to FCC as a financial win, and touted the return of glass to curbside programs after Waste Management dropped it, Gitschel said his plan would have still been much less expensive for the city.
According to Gitschel, this multi-year saga in Houston contains many other details and players with potential ethical or legal violations along the way. In the short term, these new details from EcoHub have added a surprising new element to a contract approval process that was already noteworthy due to U.S. newcomer FCC's selection over incumbent Waste Management in their headquarter city. In the long term, this could carry on past whenever the Houston City Council makes their decision and lead to an ongoing, larger discussion about the viability of mixed waste processing within the industry.