UPDATE: Judge orders Houston to turn over all recycling contract negotiation emails
UPDATE, Dec. 8: The City of Houston has been ordered to produce all responsive emails regarding seven public records requests by EcoHub and Dolcefino Consulting, per the Texas Public Information Act, by Jan. 5. This order was issued by Judge Kristen Hawkins in Harris County District Court on Dec. 6.
These emails are expected to cover all communications about EcoHub, potentially including messages from the personal email account of Mayor Sylvester Turner as well as Turner associate Maya Ford. While EcoHub was not considered during the latest round of recycling bids, the company is still rallying against the city's plans and views this records release as a public good.
"Not just for EcoHub's benefit, but for the public's benefit, let's see what’s there. Let’s see what the city has been fighting so hard to keep secret," said Wayne Dolcefino.
Following a multi-month delay, due in part to Hurricane Harvey, Turner recently reaffirmed support for FCC and moved to vote on a new contract estimated to be worth $36.8 million. Multiple Houston City Council members expressed their frustration with the process, but the outcome of a potential vote remains unknown.
A spokesperson for Turner said the city had "no comment about the pending lawsuit" and expects an FCC contract vote will be on the council's Dec. 13 meeting agenda.
Aug. 18: Dolcefino Consulting, a firm hired by Texas-based mixed-waste processing startup EcoHub, recently published multiple emails it says are from Houston city staff that appear to show internal discussions in 2016 about the now defunct "One Bin" contract.
In those emails, Harry Hayes, the city's chief operating officer and solid waste director, appears to have written on April 13, 2016, that "the Mayor declared one-bin dead." EcoHub did not receive formal notice of contract negotiations being terminated until October.
When asked to confirm the legitimacy of these emails, Houston Communications Director Alan Bernstein said in an email, "I can't confirm or deny the legitimacy of the e-mails or portions of the e-mails that are selectively displayed by a paid agent of EcoHub. Any e-mail rhetoric or alleged e-mail rhetoric selectively displayed online by a consultant does not refute the fact that the RFP welcomed proposals from bidders with alternative technology and that EcoHub posed more [than] 140 written questions to the city to clarify the request."
An Aug. 1 lawsuit filed by EcoHub, calling for the release of city emails deemed exempt under the Texas Public Information Act, is still pending. Dolcefino Consulting said it received this current batch of emails from an employee in the City of Houston's Finance Department on Aug. 10 as a response to a prior public information request.
The firm's president, Wayne Dolcefino, maintains that the remaining emails shouldn't be exempt. "The city could release this all if they wanted to," he told Waste Dive. "This is a choice. This secrecy, this nonsense, these are all games to keep the public from knowing the whole truth."
The finer points of Texas public records law are scheduled to be hashed out in court on Sept. 18. Details about why these new emails were released after the suit had been filed, or why they came from the city's finance department when Dolcefino's records request was sent to the mayor's office, remain unclear. Without further comment from the city, the only context so far has been offered by Dolcefino Consulting and a letter that EcoHub has circulated to every member of the Houston City Council.
"This is a choice. This secrecy, this nonsense, these are all games to keep the public from knowing the whole truth."
President, Dolcefino Consulting
EcoHub was selected as the winning bidder for the One Bin RFP by former Mayor Annise Parker's administration in 2015, after years of discussions and developments, but the deal was never completed. A progress report released at the end of Parker's term described contract negotiations as "ongoing" and said "most contract terms" were "favorable" at that point. Shortly after Mayor Sylvester Turner took office in January 2016, he received a memo from Chief Development Officer Andy Icken recommending that the contract be finalized. In March of that year, Turner announced a two-year interim recycling deal with Waste Management. The city later released a request for proposals for a longer term recycling contract in October.
According to EcoHub CEO George Gitschel, through conversations with Waste Dive and reporting by other publications, city officials were in contact with him up until the prior mixed-waste processing RFP was canceled that month. As noted by Bernstein, EcoHub did submit questions about the new single-stream RFP. However, Gitschel believes that the terms were written to disadvantage his mixed-waste processing concept, because they were geared toward single-stream and only included a small section on other "innovative" processes. If nothing else, the emails released to Dolcefino Consulting show that language about the One Bin proposal was indeed a factor in discussions between Icken, Hayes and other city staff while drafting the terms of the new RFP. Opposition to the plan from bother Turner and Hayes is cited multiple times.
Because EcoHub didn't end up bidding on the single-stream RFP, it is not officially part of the current discussion over the city's recycling program. Gitschel continues to advocate for the potential cost savings of building an EcoHub facility for mixed-waste processing — rather than another vendor building a new material recovery facility or using an existing one — and maintains that the city would face no financial risk.
Turner initially favored awarding a new $48.4 million contract to FCC Environmental Services, which would entail the company building a new MRF in the city, but ended up postponing a final vote last month after multiple questions from council members. Shortly after, Turner agreed to reopen bidding for best and final offers from FCC, Waste Management, Republic Services and Independent Texas Recyclers. Those offers have not been received yet, though are slated to come in soon. The Houston City Council isn't expected to make a decision on the contract until September.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that EcoHub was "awarded" a city contract in 2015. EcoHub was selected as the winning bidder of an RFP, but contract negotiations were never finalized.
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