Smith resigns commission seat to avoid conflict of interest
Marshall County commissioners have been asked to approve 595 acres near Cornersville for a landfill and the man who represented residents there has resigned from the commission because his farm could be part of the landfill.
Waste Management Inc., the business with Cedar Ridge Landfill along Mooresville Highway, on Thursday made official what residents and their elected leaders had suspected: A landfill is planned northeast of where U.S. 31A (Pulaski Highway) crosses Richland Creek.
"It's going to be a nuisance," Cornersville City Recorder Scotty Brock said after Monday night's county commission meeting. "I don't want it in the county."
Also Thursday, Sam Smith, the county commissioner who stepped down as the panel's chairman on Feb. 25, resigned from his seat on the commission saying, "My Realtor has been approached by Waste Manage-ment regarding a potential purchase of a parcel of property which I have had for sale for over a year.
"It appears Waste Manage-ment intends to seek approval for a Greenfield site (a new landfill where none has been) to take Cedar Ridge's place," Smith wrote in his letter of resignation to County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett. "Part of the approval process is a vote by the county commission."
Smith's 332.7-acre tract is valued at $509,700, according to records at the county property appraiser's office. Two adjoining tracts of land owned by Mickey Lamar Cantrell total 262.6 acres and are appraised at $786,900 for tax purposes.
Eleven months ago, commissioners voted 11-7 to permit Waste Management to dump trash on 11 acres of unused land at Cedar Ridge. Waste Management officials then said they faced a year-long state permit process before they could use their remaining available space.
County Solid Waste Director Morgan Thomas said Monday he felt state approval was still months away.
With the expansion at Cedar Ridge, the landfill could last another five years, depending on the rate of deliveries. A year ago, officials said Cedar Ridge had nearly two years of space left without the expansion. Since then, Waste Management has reduced what it will accept and nearby trash haulers have been diverted to the BFI landfill at Walter Hill, north of Murfreesboro.
Smith's resignation was "well timed," said Mary Ann Neill, the commissioner elected in February to succeed Smith as chairman of the commission.
Questions about a conflict of interest for Smith were raised among Cornersville area residents after the commission meeting Monday. Smith was absent.
"The way I understand it," Neill said, "all the negotiations (for Smith's land) were handled through a real estate agent, so there were no direct negotiations between Commissioner Smith and Waste Management."
Ethics were addressed in Smith's letter.
"Legally, I merely have to recuse myself from voting on the rezoning of said property," Smith said. "But, it is my belief that elected officials should hold themselves to the highest standards, and for me it is important that there is never the appearance of any impropriety."
Legally, Smith could remain on the commission, declare the conflict when the rezoning came up and announce that he was voting for it because it's in the best interest of the county. That procedure was used last month when a commissioner voted to rezone land owned by his brother. It's used across the state every month.
Liggett pointed out that by stepping down, Smith has ensured that residents in his district will have full representation during the approval process. "He felt like it would be a conflict of interest for him to continue to hold public office while all this was being worked out," Liggett said. "He could have just abstained from voting, but that would have deprived people in the southern part of the county of having a vote in the matter."
Smith's resignation starts a process to fill his 4th District seat on the commission.
Liggett will receive applications until April 11 from people who want to be appointed by the commission when it meets at 6 p.m. on April 28 in the Courthouse Annex on Lewisburg's public square. Applicants must be a registered voter living in the district that includes Cornersville, Ostella, Richland, Delina, Robertson Fork and an area that reaches toward Globe Road. People who want to be considered by the commission on April 28, but who didn't submit an application at Liggett's Courthouse Annex office may ask to be nominated from the floor during the April commission meeting.
The term for the commissioner elected one month from Friday will run until Aug. 28, or exactly four months. To continue, or succeed that appointed commissioner, a 4th District resident must be elected during the Aug. 7 county general election. The deadline to ask the county election commission to have a candidate's name on the Aug. 7 ballot is noon April 3.
Commissioners and the county mayor indicated on Monday night some belief that a later deadline might be possible for commission candidates to file petitions to be named on the special election ballot. County Elections Administrator Jo Ann Henry on Tuesday morning said she would ask state election officials if a later filing date is possible.
If the current deadline isn't extended, then people who want to campaign for Smith's seat have five and a half working days to get a petition, obtain at least 25 signatures from registered voters in the district and file the petition to be named on the ballot. Write-in candidacies are possible, but they require a request to the election commission asking that their paper ballots be counted.
"Whoever it is," Commissioner Mickey King said of whoever succeeds Smith, "is stepping into a nightmare."
As for who may be running, King said, "There have been some names thrown around, but I think we in the 4th District will get behind one candidate. I will listen to the people of the district."
The "nightmare" is more than politics. It includes complicated environmental laws that Neill addressed Monday night.
Because Waste Manage-ment Inc. asked the commission's Solid Waste Committee for approval, Neill, as chairman of the commission, was obliged to appoint a negotiating committee that would start contract talks. The county has a contract with Waste Management for Cedar Ridge. It's been amended to prohibit, for example, disposal of sewage treatment plant sludge. Disposal of low-level radioactive nuclear waste, typically from medical procedures, became a highly controversial topic in Rutherford County, where Middlepoint Landfill had been receiving such wastes.
The commission's negotiating committee includes Neill, Liggett, Budget Committee Chairman Richard Medley, Solid Waste Committee Chairman Don Ledford, and Commissioner Joe B. Brandon, a long-time commissioner who's respected for his experience, Neill said.
Thomas, the Solid Waste director, provided commissioners with a map of the land sought by Waste Management as well as a copy of the company's letter from Tim Wells, the market area vice president for WM Middle Tennessee Environmental Center.
The company "is requesting approval (of the site for a landfill) at the May ... meeting of the ... commissioners," Wells said. "This request comes as a result of the ... Solid Waste Committee's request to partner with Waste Management in the search for a potential Greenfield location at their committee meeting held Dec. 11."
While members of that committee did ask the company if it could look for another site, Commission-er Larry McKnight said that was one of 25-30 suggestions discussed during a brainstorming session, and it was not necessarily the preferred solution on what to do when Cedar Ridge Landfill is full in less than a decade if the expansion is granted.
Trash from a 100-mile radius goes to Cedar Ridge Landfill, according to the county's solid waste director.
The radius "is more controlled by transportation" costs, Thomas said.
McKnight said, "from what I understand, only 7 percent of the waste (going to Cedar Ridge) is from Marshall County."
Thomas said, "The payback is that the locals don't have to pay" for their convenience centers' operation, or transportation of wastes from those sites to the landfill.
Thomas estimated the value of the convenience centers at about $125 per year for each county household that disposes of its trash that way.
Lewisburg has its own collection crews and trucks and pays a tipping fee at the landfill. Waste Man-agement collects garbage from homes in Cornersville and Chapel Hill, Thomas said.
Waste Management pays the county a surcharge for the privilege of having a landfill here.
Reactions to the developments came from area residents and commissioners.
"We've had landfills in Marshall County and in the 1960s the county paid millions of dollars to clean up one," McKnight said. "We've got a landfill in Lewisburg where the city's main garage is located and where the gas department is. There was a rock quarry that was filled in" with garbage.
Lena and Marty Wright own land on Blue Creek Road. She said it's "ridiculous" to have a landfill near Cornersville. He said, "I can see the entire site" from their land.
"We live on a hill overlooking the entire site," Marty Wright said. "I don't want it at all."
Chris Elizer of Carl Fox Road owns land across the street from the potential site.
"It's for sale," Elizer said. "This won't help it sell."
About 150 people attended the commission meeting.
"Roofers and people like Jerry King (who must dispose of wastes from their trades) will have to drive all the way to the south end" for that part of their jobs, said Robert Sharp. "And, (the proposed site is) by Richland Creek and a good bit of it is in the flood plain."
Commissioner King said "Everybody in the county is going to be affected" by development of another landfill.
Meanwhile, County Zoning Administrator Don Nelson said Waste Management has not yet filed an application to have the land rezoned from its current classification, which is not suitable for a landfill.
Also Monday, commissioners reorganized the zoning resolution to move standards for landfill operations from one section to another, where the property classification for landfills is in the law. This housekeeping measure was needed because of an error made before Nelson was hired.