By Andrew Dobbs
The Austin City Council may vote as early as this week on who to hire for their new City Manager. One of the finalists, Ann Arbor, Michigan City Administrator and former Austin Director of Public Works Howard Lazarus, has raised considerable concern among TCE and other environmentalists. Here is our message to Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council regarding Mr. Lazarus; please contact them yourself and echo this message using this link: http://www.austintexas.gov/service/email-all-austin-city-council-members
December 13, 2017
Mayor and Council:
I am writing today to express Texas Campaign for the Environment’s deep concern with the prospect of Howard Lazarus being hired as Austin City Manager. We have serious doubts about Mr. Lazarus’ ability to effectively lead Austin’s Zero Waste efforts, and ask you to critically consider these facts as you move forward with one of the most important decisions you will ever make as a council.
Recycling Processing Contract
Recent Zero Waste controversies have revolved around questions of the Anti-Lobbying Ordinance. Vendors, commissioners, and TCE have expressed worries that City staff could abuse the ordinance in order to compete with private industry or to unfairly punish vendors.
These fears stem in large part from the past actions of Howard Lazarus in his capacity as Director of Public Works. In February 2009 Lazarus and his department submitted a bid to an RFP seeking a recycling processor for the City, proposing that the City abandon private processing and instead build a new materials recovery facility (MRF) on City-owned property.. Rather than pursuing an open process before City commissions and Council, Lazarus attempted to use the procurement process to spring policy decisions on elected officials.
It was this very sort of behavior that caused the recent controversy over biosolids processing, and a perpetuation of this tendency is liable to lead to even more protracted fights over contracts that ought to be easily approved. This change in management is an opportunity to improve trust between civil society and City staff; Lazarus’ hire would represent a step in the opposite direction.
Furthermore, in submitting the bid Lazarus actually signed an Anti-Lobbying Ordinance agreement, saying that he had not communicated with City staff regarding this topic. By the loose and shifting standards set for ALO enforcement since then the everyday activities necessary to do his job would have required communications that would have disqualified any other bidder. For the Director of Public Works to swear that they are not communicating with City staff or other decision-makers reflects either a profound misunderstanding of the policy or a dishonest abuse of it to gain an advantage over private industry. In either instance it raises significant questions about Lazarus’ fitness for greater responsibility.
The confluence of decision-making that reflects either gross misunderstanding or dishonesty and an underhanded attempt to use procurement processes for major policy changes without public oversight suggests that Mr. Lazarus is an incredibly risky choice for such a significant position of authority.
Ann Arbor Recycling Controversy
Austin’s Zero Waste vision is rooted in a series of public-private partnerships that combine the regulatory authority and resources of the City with the operational flexibility of private vendors. Mr. Lazarus has indicated tendencies that clash substantially with that vision. These tendencies are not limited to Austin either: one of his first actions as City Administrator in Ann Arbor, Michigan was to convince the City Council there to terminate its contract with a firm that had processed the City’s recycling for 23 years. The firm claims that a downturn in recycling markets had somewhat eroded the value of the City’s contract, and that the City–that is to say, Lazarus–used false claims of safety violations to justify cancelling the contract prematurely.
Whether or not the contractor or Lazarus is correct, the City of Ann Arbor was forced to come to an undisclosed settlement with the vendor and as of media reports in October had not had effective recycling processing in the city since summer 2016, compelled to truck its materials to other cities for over a year. One replacement vendor did in fact have real safety concerns including multiple fires on site. Lazarus was even compelled to assign a city employee to serve as a “fire monitor” at the facility–a substantial and unnecessary cost to ratepayers.
Austin has a bold vision when it comes to Zero Waste and after years of debate, discussion, and experimentation we have a good idea about what works and what doesn’t. Howard Lazarus has shown a commitment to strategies contrary to those best local practices and a tendency to create problems for Zero Waste operations wherever he goes. We urge you to take these topics into very serious consideration as you weigh your choice for City Manager.
Note that we do not have any familiarity with Spencer Cronk’s record at this time, though we are reaching out to Zero Waste and environmental advocates in Minneapolis for their perspectives. We do suggest that you ask yourselves if either of these men represent the kind of substantial cultural change and break with past practices that the 10-1 council was elected to enact. If not, we encourage you to show the leadership to start this process over until you find the change agent the people of Austin need and demand.
Thank you again for your consideration, and please do not hesitate to contact us for any reason, any time.
Central Texas Program Director
Texas Campaign for the Environment