by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ike Noder ran for mayor of Spokane last fall in part because he was miffed about the high cost of dumping garbage -- $98 a ton, among the highest in the nation -- at the county's incinerator. He claimed the region's solid waste system had been mismanaged for years, costing the county's ratepayers millions of dollars. And he was particularly troubled that the director of the system that serves all of the county's cities and towns is also the director of the system's biggest customer, the city of Spokane's solid waste department. Conflict of interest, he said.
Noder's views didn't get him elected but they did get the attention of the new mayor, Mary Verner. Last week Verner proposed to separate the leadership of the system -- to allow city Solid Waste Director Mollie Mangerich to continue to run the incinerator while handing off leadership of the city's solid waste department to Scott Windsor, its disposal operations superintendent.
"It's a small step, but the right one," says Noder.
The two positions were separate during the first several years of the incinerator's operation, until regional director Phil Williams was fired in 1997. The two jobs were then consolidated and held by Dennis Hein, who has since retired.
The mayor's proposal must be approved by the city council.
Noder hopes the move will spur other moves: an independent audit of the regional system -- something that's in the works -- and more transparency to allow elected officials and citizens to better follow the money.
County officials are also happy with Verner's proposal.
Scott Carpenter, outgoing chairman of the county's Solid Waste Advisory Committee, says the current arrangement gives the appearance of the city dominating the regional system, even though all of the towns and cities and the county route their garbage to the plant.
"This is a good first step toward a system where all of the participants have an equal say," says Carpenter.
The regional system is advised by Carpenter's committee and by the Solid Waste Liaison Board, whose six current members are elected officials from the county and the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Cheney. But county officials say there is no oversight board with authority and no apparent interest in creating one. System officials suggested last year that no changes should be made to the governance system until the incinerator's bonds are paid off in 2011.
"We'd like to see the Liaison Board have some actual authority," says Carpenter, "and expand the number of participants."
It appears Mayor Verner has gotten the message.
"I have heard the Commissioners," Verner is quoted in a press release announcing her intention. "They want to ensure that the interests of all the County's local governments and citizens are represented."
Some observers think that, without a change in governance, the region's solid waste system will fall apart, with cities and towns looking for other ways to get rid of their garbage when their contracts with the system end in the early and middle parts of the next decade. They say a weakened regional system would mean higher garbage tipping fees for the people still in the system or even closure of the incinerator because there wouldn't enough revenue to operate it.
"We don't want to see the system broken up," says Bill Wedlake, the county's regional solid waste coordinator. "But people are not happy with their representation. This is a chance for us to take a hard look at things and what it will take to keep the system together."