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Texas Town Goes Silent Amid Allegations of Secrecy and Cronyism

Officials in one Texas city went silent over allegations of secrecy and cronyism in a questionable closed-door garbage collection deal. The deal overcharged local businesses for years and the city fizzled on its promises to look into the matter for its taxpayers.

In 2014, Republic Systems, a San Angelo trash collector, got caught overcharging thousands of its commercial customers for more than a decade. The allegation surfaced during a class action lawsuit filed by Texas Disposal Systems (TDS), the losing competitor for the city’s waste contract.

TDS owner Bob Gregory pleaded with city officials to hold off on inking a new trash deal until performing an audit on Republic and making it public, KLST reported. The San Angelo Standard-Times demanded the city push pause on the deal because too many questions remained unanswered. Republic held the garbage contract for the past 37 years.

City officials promised to do their own internal audit but still voted 6-to-0 to renew Republic’s commercial, residential, and landfill contracts in a lucrative $260-million, 10-year exclusive deal. Few details of the agreement are known to taxpayers.

A Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) request obtained by TDS revealed San Angelo officials negotiated with Republic for higher rates than their original bid proposed, according to San Angelo LIVE!. Former City Councilman H.R. Wardlaw III told the local news outlet he was not pleased that city staff negotiated the trash contract “behind-closed-doors,” adding a “hidden tax increase disguised as a service fee hike.”

Now, three years later, unanswered questions about the city’s promised audit, customer refunds, and overall transparency in the Republic deal linger. In January, San Angelo LIVE! reported on the city’s “lax oversight,” revealing City Hall never officially audited Republic. The only existing audit came from Republic, who hired an outside accounting firm while they were embroiled in litigation with TDS. That report uncovered Republic overcharged around 2,000 San Angelo businesses $6.5 million, including interest and other surcharges between 2004 and 2014. Republic was supposed to refund the overpayments.

The City of San Angelo’s so-called audit turned out to be a one-page, unsigned, and undated “draft” that concluded: “Republic had been overcharging commercial customers for many years. The total amount that had been overcharged was too great and spanned over too many years to be determined.”

Several investigative reports sought answers but San Angelo city spokesman Anthony Wilson and Mayor Dwain Morrison would not speak to Emmy-Award winning veteran investigative journalist Wayne Dolcefino.

Subsequently, in a city-produced video, Wilson lashed out, attacking Dolcefino and San Angelo LIVE! for their Republic coverage, also asserting the city had a viable audit. Wilson then revealed Republic refunded 96 percent of all customers with only four percent outstanding because the trash company said they could not locate certain individuals.

Only weeks before, city officials did not even know which customers received refunds. City Manager Daniel Valenzuela had to ask Republic to give the city  information about “to whom and what amount of refunds were made.” Republic told City Attorney Brandon Dyson such information was confidential and part of pending litigation.

“All we’ve ever reported was that the city didn’t have a clue who got a refund,” said Dolcefino, who highlighted roughly $250,000 remains unclaimed by folks Republic said they could not find. As a public service, San Angelo LIVE! created an online claim form for people who believe they are owed monies and did not get a refund.

Yet, in an op-ed, the Standard-Times editor slammed San Angelo LIVE! and Dolcefino, asserting they missed the “real issue” — that the city paid back those business owners they found.

Breitbart Texas spoke to San Angelo LIVE! publisher Joe Hyde, who underscored the issue was always about open government. “The lack of transparency in the whole trash deal excluded every citizen a voice.”

The Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) guarantees citizens a fair, democratic, and open government, banning local officials from hiding public business from the people. Transparency is a hot button issue. Breitbart Texas reported on Plano residents who filed a lawsuit against their city officials for allegedly violating TOMA in a case which asserts, their city council passed an ordinance behind closed doors, without citizen input. Recently, a visiting judge trampled on TOMA in a Montgomery County case, dismissing charges against a magistrate and precinct commissioner indicted for conducting secret meetings in a $280 million road bond proposal.

Breitbart Texas reached out to San Angelo’s public servants for comment but spokesman Wilson did not respond to our emails and phone messages for weeks. He then emailed: “No thank you.” Subsequently, Wilson declined our requests for interviews with other city officials, including the mayor, who also never responded to our communications.

Although the Standard-Times dismissed the Republic debacle as “settled” and any assertions against the company as “groundless,” three of the four mayoral candidates running in San Angelo’s May 6 election had plenty to say about the trash controversy and they spoke to Breitbart Texas.

“Citizens must have a voice,” said Brenda Gunter, the front runner. The longtime local businesswoman promised accountability if elected, including a review of the garbage deal. She noted, “The trash contract still has business and residents upset because they do not feel there was enough communication, honesty, or transparency as it relates to the contract negotiations.”

By email, Gunter told Breitbart Texas many San Angelo residents felt mislead. Homebuilders thought fees and options would remain the same under the re-upped Republic contract. They went up. “Commercial trash fees are some of the highest in the state now and developers have no options in terms of who they can use,” she noted about the monopoly deal. Gunter voiced residential customer frustration. Many homeowners did not know their pickup location changed in the new deal from the back alleyway to front curbside.

Mayoral hopeful Zachary Ryan Taylor, 23, echoed similar themes. “This contract has highlighted the fact that our city does not have much concern for transparency or accountability which is why I’ve called for a review of these unelected bureaucrats at several public forums,” he told Breitbart Texas in an email. He said city staff “negotiated a terrible trash contract” for San Angelo’s commercial businesses.

“That fact alone should be enough to allow commercial accounts to decide who picks up their trash. In my opinion, City Council did not do its job in fighting for the citizens’ best interests,” he added.

Contender and Mayor Pro-Tem Charlotte Farmer voted for the Republic deal, was later deposed during the trash collector’s lawsuit, and reviewed the city’s incomplete audit. Metered in her emailed words, she rehashed how the city asked Republic to “look at their billing practices.” She said, “Small clerical errors were found, I believe, around the single digit percentages and Republic immediately refunded all customers.” Farmer said she had no access or knowledge of what Republic charged or business customers paid. She called the issue resolved.

Tony Villarreal, who supported the Republic deal but disagreed with the monopoly aspect and wanted an open market, did not respond to our request for comment.

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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