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Mon., Oct. 29, 2007

Collective solution

When Spokane City Council convened in September 1989 to discuss the proposed waste-to-energy plant, a dozen police officers were posted at City Hall. About 300 people showed up, and the issue was so contentious that city leaders feared violence would erupt.

It didn’t, but garbage dominated the mayoral elections that fall, and the issue pitted elected official against elected official, neighbor against neighbor. The plant opened in 1991 and if you moved to Spokane in the mid-1990s, you might not be aware that people once felt so passionate – and so angry – about garbage disposal here.

Are garbage wars once again in the future? Some signs are piling up.

First, some background: The city of Spokane manages the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, primarily because the city had a well-established trash-disposal system in place when bonds were needed for the $110 million waste-to-energy plant. So the city bought the bonds.

City garbage makes up 50 percent of the waste stream. The rest comes from Spokane Valley and the smaller cities and unincorporated areas of Spokane County. The city collects its own garbage. Outside the city, trash pickup is done by private companies. However it’s collected, almost all the garbage ends up at the waste-to-energy plant.

The bonds that built the plant will be paid off in 2011. What will happen when those bonds are paid off? That’s what officials are grappling with. CH2M Hill, an engineering firm, has outlined six proposals. One calls for shuttering the waste-to-energy plant and building a new landfill.

The county hired its own expert to review the proposals. County commissioners are demanding an independent audit of the system. They have complained, and rightfully so, about the lack of transparency on the city’s part in years past. City and county folks are optimistic the new director of solid waste, Molly Mangerich, is committed to better communication.

Terry Novak was city manager during the first garbage wars, and he hopes we never have to experience them again. He said citizens get most easily fired up about three issues: traffic on their streets, leash laws and garbage.

The fomenting garbage controversy is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Officials tend to tackle regional issues in piecemeal fashion, municipality by municipality. Garbage collection and disposal is a regional challenge; it should be solved collectively.

Spokane city and county elected officials and staffers, along with leaders from smaller towns, worked together for two years to brainstorm a Spokane River cleanup plan. They proved they are capable of this kind of complex collaboration.

No one wins in a garbage war. The Spokane region is finally getting some notice as a sophisticated metropolitan area, poised for prosperity. Calling in the cops to guard a garbage meeting is so 1989. Elected leaders need to figure this one out in collaboration. It’s the 2007 way of doing the people’s business.

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