Refuse District Quells Turmoil

Board Decides Not to Privatize, Narrows the List of Candidates for Hiring Next Manager of Regional Operation

By IAN FEIN

After a long dispute about the future of the Island's four-town regional refuse district, board members said yesterday that they expect to hire a new manager by the end of the month.

Five candidates applied this week for the job to run the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District, which includes the four towns of Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown and West Tisbury.

Board members should begin interviewing applicants as early as next week. Erik Lowe of West Tisbury, a member of the board's personnel subcommittee, said yesterday that several of the candidates were Islanders and many had management experience in the waste industry.

To protect their confidentiality, the applicants' names were not made public.

"I think we have a real chance to make a rational and cost efficient district possible. I think we're on the verge of doing it," said district chairman Alex Preston of Chilmark. "Our new manager will have to do long-term planning and thinking, but if duty calls he'll have to go out back and get his feet dirty. So off we go. I think we've got some good candidates."

The board's decision to hire a new manager appears to put an end to the talk last year about eliminating the manager's position and privatizing the district. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs left the district more than a decade ago to privatize their operations.

The privatization discussion divided the district board, which deadlocked for several months last spring over whether to renew the contract of its former manager Charles Noonan, who worked for the refuse district for 13 years.

With the board still split, Mr. Noonan announced his retirement last June, less than a month before his contract expired. Mr. Noonan agreed to stay on through the end of the calendar year.

In December, the district board voted to sign a last-minute three-month contract with Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), the national trash-hauling giant that also handles waste disposal in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury.

BFI took over the district operations Jan. 1 and completed its $4,000-a-month contract yesterday.

During discussions over the last three months, refuse district board members decided to abandon the privatization scheme and return to the manager model.

"I think it became clear that was the right thing to do," Mr. Preston said. "For me personally, the only idea we ever had was to get outside bids on what it cost to run the facility. I never backed privatization. I was always in favor of using outside numbers to make sure we were running an efficient operation."

Last week, board members voted unanimously to put longtime district foreman Steve Dourian in charge until the new manager was hired. Mr. Dourian said yesterday he was looking forward to taking over the reins for the interim period, which officially starts today. He said he did not apply for the manager position.

"I think it's going in a good direction so far," Mr. Dourian said of the district. "I feel great about running things for the time being. I want to make sure this place is running smoothly."

Mr. Noonan's departure was one in a string of resignations by district leaders last year. In the months leading up to Mr. Noonan's retirement, three board members - all known to back district management - quit the board.

Administrative assistant James Hardiman, who was hired in February 2003 as part of efforts to improve the district's bookkeeping system, also stepped down last June after allegations arose that he forged Mr. Noonan's signature on a document.

The district advertised last month for a new office bookkeeper as well and board members have already interviewed six applicants, narrowing the field down to two remaining candidates.

Mr. Preston this week sounded eager to leave the district's past behind, saying he preferred not to comment on the many departures in 2004.

Divisions on the board last spring also played out among individual members' towns. West Tisbury and Aquinnah representatives supported renewing Mr. Noonan's contract, while Edgartown and Chilmark members opposed. The board is made up of two representatives from each of the district's four towns.

Mr. Lowe, who joined the district board in September, said yesterday that the divisions have for a large part subsided.

"It was a hashing-out period," Mr. Lowe said. "Anytime there's a change there's always going to be divisions. The previous board had been there a long time, and Charlie had been there a long time. But now everybody's interest is obviously that the district continue to operate economically for the towns. And I think everybody's on the same page, although we would like to have Aquinnah's input."

Aquinnah has not been represented on the district board in recent months. Aquinnah's longtime member and former chairman Richard Skidmore resigned last year, and his replacement Jerry Weiner stopped attending district meetings this winter.

Board members also split last year over plans for a solid waste composting facility, which many former board members supported. Composting has long been discussed as a goal of the district, but there has been little movement in that direction recently.

Mr. Preston said this week that a composting facility is still on the table, but that hiring a new manager is the first priority.

"I'm all for composting. The board is not against it," Mr. Preston said. "If we can compost and cut down on the amount we ship off- Island and it makes economic sense, then let's rock and roll. But the district needs to get its financial house in order first. And I think we're almost there."