Beside the Point: Solid Waste: Willie Rhodes Slides Sideways

City announces SWS 'reorganization' – Rhodes to head 'Code Compliance'

When Wells "Hustler" Dunbar left on vacation last week, he confidently assured us that with the city elections concluded and City Council not meeting this week, there would be little breaking news from City Hall.


Dunbar had barely left the building when the long-anticipated reorganization of Solid Waste Services was announced, by means of a brief memorandum sent to council late Friday from Assistant City Manager Robert Goode and with virtually no alert to the media. Goode's memo ostensibly highlighted the separation of the "Code Enforcement" division from SWS and its "rebranding" as "Code Compliance," while not very successfully burying the real news: Effective immediately, longtime SWS Director Willie Rhodes has been kicked sideways – "Mr. William E. Rhodes will remain as the leader for Code Compliance." Asked about the abrupt shift in responsibilities, Goode said: "It's a win-win for both sides [of the department]. Code Compli­ance has been working very well, but the issues there continue to grow ... and we're also looking for a new perspective in Solid Waste." Rhodes has led the department for nearly 14 years. Goode said a national search for his replacement will take two to three months; in the meantime, Assistant Director Tammie Williamson will serve as acting director.

It's no secret that SWS and Rhodes have been under the gun for several months, perhaps reaching back to last year's ascension of new City Manager Marc Ott. Ott put on hold plans to build a new materials recycling facility (aka MRF, or "murf" in wonk-speak) when its projected budget – after the addition of various "green" features, bells, and whistles – had grown from $17 million to $86 million. But the advent of single-stream recycling meant outsourcing the recycling work and shipping it out of town, with the city consequently losing money on its contract with Greenstar North America, generating backlash from both local enviros and tax hawks. Finally, a proposed SWS long-term plan was projected to cost more than the city's entire Comprehensive Plan. All these issues generated persistent conflict with the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, so much so that last week, SWAC Vice Chair Rick Cofer told the Chronicle he expected that the city's upcoming SWS review would "recommend leadership changes, for a variety of reasons."

Cofer's expectations came true more quickly than he anticipated, and he "applauded" the reorganization when it was announced, although he is saying conciliatory things about both Rhodes and Williamson, who he said will do a good job. "With Austin facing many critical challenges, as well as important opportunities," Cofer said in a statement, "this decision will help the Department renew its vision and provide new energy to its mission. As we move forward with new leadership, we should embrace this moment to work together as a community for a greener Austin."

"Willie's a good man and a likable guy," Cofer said a couple of days later, "and he ran a good Solid Waste Department that is very good at picking up the trash and dealing with it. But it's a new time, and the city is out of the strictly solid waste business and in the era of recycling."

Rhodes did not return a call requesting comment, but Goode described him as "excited" about the opportunity in the renamed Code Compliance division, which deals with many street-level concerns, from illegal dumping to substandard housing to cars parked on lawns. Code Enforcement has been notoriously understaffed for inspectors and complaint-driven; in Goode's memo to council, the new name is said to reflect a "refocus" of the division from "an enforcement model to a compliance model ... based on cooperation, coordination, and communication." Goode told me: "It's not that we won't be doing enforcement. It's just that we'll try every effort to get voluntary compliance before we move to that stage."

The reorganization is described as having "minimal budget implications," although a national search for a director with a vision wedding (as Goode described it) "solid waste services with the zero-waste philosophy" will presumably mean a new director-level salary to match or exceed that of Rhodes. In a very lean budget year, Goode anticipates no new resources for the department, although he informed the council that "we will likely suggest changes to the mix of revenues that fund both Code and Solid Waste Services." Goode promises "opportunities for public input" in the selection of a new director and says it won't be rushed: "We're going to go slow to go fast."

Finally, on Tuesday City Manager Marc Ott announced the hiring of the city's new human resources director to replace Cathy Rodgers, who retired last year. Mark Washington, currently assistant human resources director for Fort Worth, with 13 years of HR experience and degrees in business administration and educational ministry, will assume the position Aug. 1.

City Hall Hustle will return next week – or else Point Austin will be visibly annoyed.

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Solid Waste Services, Willie Rhodes, Rick Cofer, Code Enforcement, Marc Ott, Robert Goode

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