Ulster County comptroller March Gallagher says the chairman of the county legislature David Donaldson set a dangerous precedent when he took the unusual step of intervening in her attempts to audit the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA). He calls that silly, as the Great Ulster County Compost Standoff continues.
Gallagher began the audit this spring when she began hearing complaints about the compost program at the agency. Her office requested documents, records and policies and set a deadline of May 24. At a meeting with UCRRA a few days later, Gallagher says, “We asked them no less than five times what they were willing to provide and they refused our requests every time.” She says she had no choice but to issue a subpoena.
As we’ve reported, on June 18, UCRRA sued to challenge her authority. The agency argued that the comptroller’s audit was beyond the scope of her mandate and was motivated by political ambition. Now, Donaldson has delivered most of the UCRRA records and documents Gallagher demanded to her office. But the dispute is far from over.
The comptroller’s audit of UCRRA was sparked by community complaints over the lack of available compost, favoritism towards family members at the recycling agency and noxious smells. The public was bringing less food waste than expected to RRA’S facility so the agency had limited compost to sell. There were numerous complaints that William Whittaker, an RRA employee with a side business in compost and brother of the director of operations, was able to buy large quantities of compost while diminished amounts were available to the public. (Gallagher says the documents appear to confirm that a tremendous volume of compost product was sold to Whittaker.)
Gallagher also wondered why compost was sold at a fraction of market price. The more money the agency makes, the less taxpayers have to subsidize the disposal of solid waste through net service fees. She also reviewed the RRA’s contract with the county and advised the legislature on several budgetary and reporting deadlines that were not being met.
Donaldson says he channeled the papers to the comptroller through his office to “end the stalemate” with UCRRA and save taxpayers time and money by eliminating the need for more subpoenas and legal fees. But in a statement, the comptroller says “these materials raise more questions than answers.” Many are undated, their source and the timing of their creation is often unverifiable. “The documents do not contain all the books and records requested by an audit.”
What’s more, Gallagher questions the value of what Donaldson calls his “long-standing, well-established relationship with UCRRA” in his press release. She says, “This close relationship makes the Legislature’s participation in the audit even more troubling as it pertains to a lack of independence.” Donaldson says this is absurd. The legislature has oversight over the agency, an independent authority whose board is appointed by the lawmakers. He says he asked for the information as part of his attempts to solve the problems at RRA.
Gallagher says “appropriate agency oversight and transparency were never more needed than now” and she’s going to do her job on behalf of the people of Ulster County by carrying out her audit. For its part, the RRA says it won’t drop its suit to stop her unless the comptroller withdraws her “illegal” subpoena. The agency’s attorney Jacob Lamme claims “the agency cannot sit by idly and be the target of political gamesmanship while allowing Ms. Gallagher to unilaterally expand the limited powers of her elected office.”
The comptroller is convinced that a state Supreme Court judge will order the agency to comply with her subpoena as soon as later this month.
The stalemate continues for now, but there has been some progress. Donaldson says the agency is correcting some issues through “policy changes and new oversight.” There are new plans for mitigating odors from the UCRRA Organics Recovery Facility. After months of negotiating, the RRA and the legislature have agreed on a ten-year Solid Waste Disposal Plan. And the agency has told Donaldson it would no longer distribute scarce compost on a “first come, first served” basis, since that clearly favored RRA employees.