Was Ada County transparent in Dynamis dealings?

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by Jamie Grey

NWCN.com

Posted on November 11, 2012 at 11:02 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 4 at 3:48 PM

BOISE -- The Ada County Board of County Commissioners announced the partnership with Dynamis Energy more than two years ago, and since then, there's been public outcry.

The project is building a waste-to-energy facility at the Hidden Hollow Sanitary Landfill. The idea is to divert some of the landfill's trash by burning it, then selling the generated energy to Idaho Power.

How did this idea come about? KTVB combed through documents and recordings and talked to people involved with the project and people who thought they should have been involved.

KTVB has heard a number of concerns about various parts of the project: From environmental aspects, to the technology, to the company Dynamis. For this report, KTVB investigated the transparency questions: How county commissioners handled a big project and who was left out.

Former hearing clerk: "The public didn't know it was happening."

In June 2010, the Board of Ada County Commissioners signed into an agreement with Dynamis Energy, LLC. A $2 million deal for the plans and design of a waste to energy facility at the Hidden Hollow landfill.

Back in May, Commissioner Sharon Ullman told KTVB they chose Dynamis out of a number of companies.

"We put out a request for Expressions of Interest, and had 7 responses. Dynamis had to compete for this project," Ullman said.

But critics say this deal was already done before the request went out. KTVB found that request for interested companies was filed nine business days before the June 30, 2010 meeting when commissioners signed the Dynamis contract. In that meeting, commissioners openly talked about working on the deal for a while.

Commissioner in 2010: 'We've been working on this for some time'

KTVB obtained recordings of that meeting. Then-Commissioner Fred Tilman remarked: "Anyway, we've been working on this for some time..." and "Lord knows we've had everybody in the building working on it...so... [several people heard laughing]."

Ultimately, the agreement was signed in that June 30, 2010 meeting. The meeting was four minutes long. Commissioners talked about needing to move the project along quickly.

"I'm just really excited and hope that this moves along quickly, even if we have a few more late nights getting it done," Ullman said during the 2010 meeting.

In fact, the commissioners had to reconvene the meeting later in the day to finish up paperwork they said was accidentally left out in the rush to sign the contract.

"In our haste to get the professional services agreement, the terms of that agreement completed, and get it done this morning, signed, we did overlook the fact that we have a commitment letter to Dynamis that should have been on our agenda as well that we need to sign, approve and sign," Ullman said in the 2010 meeting.

Former clerk believes commissioners skirted open meeting laws

Pam Woodies is a former county employee who says she quit over Dynamis. She was the commission's hearing clerk at the time the contract was signed and says she had access to the commissioners' public and private schedules. She says she didn't like what she saw happening in the office leading up to the contract.

"I chose to leave just because I didn't want to be party anymore to working in an office where that degree of what I thought was inappropriate behavior by our elected officials was going on," Woodies said.

Woodies remembers when the contract was signed, and she recalls being surprised it was signed in four minutes. Other contracts, smaller ones, she says were sometimes signed without public hearings, but she thought the Dynamis contract sounded like a big one.

"To my knowledge, that was the first public notice of anything related to Dynamis was when the contract was signed," Woodies said. "It seemed a very significant event. This was a huge undertaking, as I understood. It was a huge amount of money."

Former clerk: 'A lot of behind-closed-door things'

She says while that was the first time it was brought up publicly, Dynamis had been around the office for a while.

"I think the Dynamis initial discussions were back in '09. Middle of '09." Woodies said. "I saw a lot of meetings that they were holding that the public didn't know about. I wasn't posting meetings, notices of meetings. Or I would see individual meetings where one commissioner would meet with someone and then they would schedule an hour later for the next commissioner to meet with that same person, presumably about that same topic. And normally that would be done at a real meeting with a quorum, with a recording, with a clerk.'

"It just was a lot of meetings, a lot of behind closed door things going on that one day miraculously turned into a signed contract." Woodies said. "To kind of slip it in there kind of like a [smaller] contract to lease a copier, which is kind of how it was handled, struck me as odd."

County Operations cut from project, P&Z never consulted

Other things are unusual about the Dynamis project. For example, soon after the county's operations department finished paying out the nearly $2 million dollars, the director confirms landfill management was taken away from his department and says for the first time in nearly 30 years, Operations isn't overseeing a large county building project.

Also, the Dynamis project never went through Planning and Zoning for any permits or recommendations.

"People would ask me, 'Why aren't you doing something about it?' And I would just say, 'We haven't looked at any of the documents because nothing has come before the commission'," Planning and Zoning Chairman John Seidl said. "We do believe that a project of this magnitude and of this scope probably should be reviewed by the planning and zoning commission."

What's happening now?

Since that June 2010 deal, the county paid out the contracted nearly $2 million. KTVB obtained the payment records and found county money paid not only for planning and engineering services, but thousands of dollars in computer equipment. The contracts have been changed; one was changed in a summer 2012 meeting with the change added to the agenda with less than 48 hours notice.

"Especially this last summer, the contract's been amended, the franchise agreement's been amended, and everything has just been going along click, click, click, giving Dynamis everything they've asked for. And the public was never involved in it," Jim Tibbs, Commissioner Elect, said. "For me, I think what was done was extremely unethical."

On Tuesday Tibbs, a strong Dynamis opponent, was elected to the Commission, as was Dave Case, who's already sitting on the board [appointed to fill a vacancy] and has already tried unsuccessfully to pull the contracts.

Once sworn in at the beginning of the year, Tibbs plans to tackle the project and ask the $2 million be returned.

"After January 14th, there is a very good chance that the direction of the commission could change, but we have to wait, we have to talk about it," Tibbs said. Tibbs says he and the other commissioners would have to consult the county's legal staff to see if the contracts could be pulled.

Non-profit group files lawsuit against county

On Thursday, Idaho Citizens for a Safe Environment and a Transparent Government, Inc. filed suit against the county. The attorney who filed the lawsuit lives about a mile and a half from the landfill. He says legal action was the only way to stop the project.

"I think it's our only avenue at this point," Attorney Andrew Schoppe said.

Amongst allegations, the group is claiming open meeting law violations and wants the contracts thrown out. The group has also successfully prompted a pending criminal investigation into the Commission's dealings with Dynamis.

"We're very hopeful that this will expose the wrongdoing that we think is there and hopefully tell us all why it is the commissioners have been so zealous about this project," Schoppe said.

P&Z holds public meeting in response to concerns

Also Thursday, Planning and Zoning held a public meeting in response to a citizen petition asking to voice concerns over the project.

"I think the county commissioners believe the way they were handling this was correct, and the Planning and Zoning Commission tonight believes that there ought to be a hearing on it," Chairman Seidl said.

The advisory board can't change anything without a proposal in front of them, but they are making a recommendation to the county commission. The following is what P&Z approved sending to the commission:

"We as the Planning and Zoning Commission have accommodated a request by the public to hold a hearing on the Dynamis Energy Project planned at the Ada County Landfill. Based on the testimony received, we believe that the approval of this project did not afford the public and affected persons the opportunity to comment publicly as to the effect of the project on them, and did not have the opportunity to provide substantive input to the approval process. We therefore recommend to the county commissioners that they require the project be submitted to Ada County as a conditional use permit and be scheduled for a regular public meeting of the Ada County Planning and Zoning Commission."

Commission to take up $2 million in upcoming meeting

Commissioners have said the contracted deal is once construction begins, Dynamis will pay the county $2 million for the plans. A new meeting agenda for Wednesday at 1 p.m. suggests commissioners are considering exercising part of the Dynamis contract that could call for the payment of $2 million sooner.

The CEO of Dynamis did not respond to requests for an interview for this particular story. The current commissioners also declined to discuss transparency questions, the chairman referencing the newly-filed lawsuit.

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