By Kristen M. Clark
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — A small Broward County waste-hauler persuaded Wellington Council members last month to change bidding rules so it can compete on one of the village’s longest-running and highest-value contracts.
Despite only 17 months’ experience picking up trash for tens of thousands of homes in a single area, Southern Waste Systems has the chance to bid on Wellington’s five-year contract, worth in excess of $30 million. Bids are due Wednesday.
The council’s decision appears to help only Southern Waste, but Wellington council members said they wanted the rules changed to increase competition for the bid.
“We know the more people that bid, the potential better price and service we could get,” Councilman Matt Willhite said.
But public comments, as well as emails and text messages obtained by The Palm Beach Post, show the sudden interest from Willhite and Vice Mayor John Greene in a more competitive process began only after they met with Southern Waste representatives two months after the rules were set and learned the company’s inexperience made it ineligible to bid.
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Founder a hauler in NYC
The Wellington Council unanimously agreed in November to stick to its historic norm: five years of experience with five contracts servicing an area no smaller than Wellington, at least 20,000 pickups.
But Southern Waste’s credentials fall far short of that bar.
Although its founder, Anthony Lomangino, has decades of commercial experience — he was once among New York City’s largest haulers — almost all of Southern Waste’s government clients are small municipalities.
The company obtained its first sizable contract in Palm Beach County by similarly persuading county commissioners in 2012 to change bidding rules so it could bid on a Solid Waste Authority contract.
At the time, Southern Waste’s experience in picking up residential garbage was limited to about 7,000 curbside households in Palm Beach County and 12,500 in Lauderhill.
County commissioners eventually awarded Southern Waste its largest district contract: 74,200 curbside and containerized pickups in unincorporated areas of southeast Palm Beach County.
The five-year, $46 million contract took effect in October 2013. The company has received one administrative penalty in that time for $100 because of missed yard waste, according to the Solid Waste Authority.
Southern Waste’s experience on that single, major contract was used to bolster the company’s credentials and propel arguments for why the company should be eligible to bid in Wellington, whose contract is only a third the size of the county’s zone.
In recent weeks, Willhite repeatedly blamed the village staff and accused them of providing “misleading” information by not saying that Southern Waste specifically would be excluded when the bid terms were set in November.
David Dee, the village’s legal consultant on the bid, told the council then that five “highly qualified” vendors would meet the criteria, and “one won’t.”
Willhite says he had assumed all haulers for the county’s Solid Waste Authority would be able to bid in Wellington.
It wasn’t until 66 days later — when Willhite had a lunch meeting with a Southern Waste representative — that he became avidly interested in who exactly was able to bid, records show.
The lunch was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at Cheddars, a restaurant in Wellington, emails indicate. At 12:43 p.m., Willhite texted Village Manager Paul Schofield, demanding the council reconsider the eligibility terms of the bidding.
Willhite was originally by himself in advocating for Southern Waste’s inclusion in the process.
Greene abruptly changed his position and agreed with Willhite after he, too, met with Southern Waste officials on Jan. 27.
Greene said at a council meeting later that day that the company gave him “some pretty compelling evidence and testimony and support from other municipalities,” but he cautioned: “What I don’t want to do is compromise on the standard of service and the quality of service that is expected by our residents.”
Patti Hamilton, a vice president for Southern Waste, said in a recent email statement to The Post that the company had heard Wellington’s contract was going out for bid but didn’t know until January that the experience requirements would make it ineligible.
“Since the (request for proposals) had not been issued, we made inquiry with the village regarding a change in the experience qualifications,” she said.
Willhite’s and Greene’s request to change the bidding rules was rebuffed by the rest of the council: at the time, Mayor Bob Margolis and Councilwoman Anne Gerwig.
The council reached a compromise in late January, which relaxed the experience requirements slightly but they still excluded Southern Waste.
Willhite and Greene brought up the bidding rules a third time Feb. 9, saying they didn’t understand the compromise.
This time, the board had five members again. Councilman John McGovern took office Feb. 2 after he was appointed to fill a vacancy.
Willhite complained that the council’s compromise “made no sense … if it wasn’t going to get us any benefit of allowing every company to bid.”
Given that the matter had been decided already, the persistence troubled some of the other council members.
“This is the third bite at the apple because some of us didn’t like the first two bites,” Margolis said then.
The renewed discussion was unexpected — even by some on the council — because it wasn’t listed on the council’s agenda or noticed in any written correspondence available before the meeting.
However, Hamilton was sitting in the audience, as she and her lobbyist Fred Angelo had done for the previous meetings when Willhite, and later Greene, raised questions on Southern Waste’s behalf.
Hamilton said in an e-mail that she simply wanted to see if the council would address questions the company had raised in late January about the “clarity” of the council’s compromise. She said the company had, at the time, intended to speak on the issue at the Feb. 10 council meeting.
The village staff said Hamilton’s attendance at the workshop didn’t prompt an investigation into possible violations of the “cone of silence” prohibiting discussion between bidders and village officials until a contract is awarded. The “cone” was triggered Feb. 4 when the contract went out for bid.
In one of his first acts in office, McGovern cast the deciding vote to change the bid rules a third and final time.
McGovern said then that he felt comfortable with the staff’s position that they could judge all of the companies adequately even with the reduced standard for required experience.
“My position, I think forever on this council, would be to encourage as many bids as possible for the selection committee to evaluate,” McGovern said.
The council voted, 3-2, in September not to renew its $35 million agreement with Waste Management, which would have locked in the village for another seven years. Council members had no complaints with Waste Management’s work but they said they wanted to see if competitors might offer a better bargain.
Council members are expected to award the new contract this spring, so it can take effect Oct. 1.