An Island Unto Itself
The controversy over a trash-removal contract on Block Island moves to the mainland this week, as the company with the losing bid files a lawsuit in Superior Court. But it's not just about this contract. Jim Hummel finds the suit claims there is a larger conspiracy that makes it virtually impossible for outsiders to do business on the island.
The controversy over a trash-removal contract on Block Island moves to the mainland this week, as the company that lost out files a suit here in Superior Court. But it's not just about losing the contract. The suit alleges there is a larger conspiracy that makes it impossible for outsiders to do business on the island.
The town council on Block Island last month awarded another three-year contract for trash removal to Block Island Recycling Management Inc. BIRM has had the contract since 1998.
This, despite an offer by Waste Haulers BI and its owner Mark Cullion to offer substantially more in a newly-created usage fee for the town-owned transfer facility. BIRM offered $60,000 over three years, the minimum amount required in the town's contract specs. Cullion offered $217,500 for the same period, a difference of $157,500.
Cullion: ``I'm not a crusader but I love the island and I just think this kind of behavior is not in the best interest of the average person on the island.''
Mark Cullion owns Cullion Concrete based in Wakefield and has bid on municipal projects throughout Rhode Island. He also owns a house on Block Island, which is why he initially became interested in the town's trash operation.
Cullion: ``A couple of years ago I put a new roof on my house and I had maybe a couple of tons of shingles and it struck me that when I brought them there, the price of the shingles that were trash were almost the same price as the new ones.''
So Cullion did the math and some research, discovering the 12-cents a pound BIRM charges at the transfer station translates to $240 a ton.
He found New York City charges $167/ton.
And Martha's Vineyard $146/ton.
But it was the bidding process that bothered him the most. Cullion picked up the Block Island Times to find ads that he says attacked his company and his character. And there were pictures of the McGinnes family - which has a hand in the town's power plant, its lone gas station and heating oil company. Michael McGinnes and Sean McGarry co-own Block Island Recycling.
Cullion had never seen a public campaign to lobby a town council for a contract.
Cullion: ``You put together your paperwork, your qualifications, your pricing and your insurances and you present the bid. I mean we don't have an opportunity at these towns - a local resident says you should go to the town council and promote yourself. Well that's kind of like collusio. I'm not going to go in there and talk to people on a personal level about what we can do. I don't think that's how it's supposed to work.''
Hummel: ``You're in business. You do bidding.''
Cullion: ``Of course.''
Hummel: ``For municipalities. You ever seen anything like this?''
Hummel: ``What about their argument we've been here and we've done a good job. What would you say to that?''
Cullion: ``Well that's great, but the bidding process works, take your average road builder, if he does a good job the last time, he gets it the next time? No, it's a completely different bid and the best foot forward gets the project.''
The council met the afternoon of Nov. 7th in closed session at Town Hall - just before a public session to award the bid.
Cullion: ``That they were going to go to closed session at 2, and then open it back up at 4 for the public; then they award the bid and then we have public comment after the bid. Which, that's kind of like, why are we going to have public comment after you award the bid? It's like trying to put the manure back in the horse. It's a little late.''
Cullion said the head of the council, Kim Gaffett, had little to say by way of explanation.
Cullion: ``The first warden said: `You know, we looked at everything and it's just on the bid; any of this propaganda that led up to this has not been taken under account, it's on the bid and the bid only.'''
Hummel: ``Did she go out of her way to say that?''
Cullion: ``Yeah, well she made a point of it. She said it, 'cause no one asked her, why would you say it? So the town manager reiterated basically the exact statement, `It's a tough decision, but we looked at just the bid, not the propaganda, the publicity campaign and all of that. I as the town manager recommend we go with BIRM.' I'm sitting there with my wife and said: `Well that just cost the town $57,000 a year.'"
Cullion says the McGinnes family was out in full force at the meeting.
Cullion: ``And then there was a round of applause from - they were the groom's side I was on the left side, so I'm sitting with the bride.''
Hummel: ``Was the bride's side a little thin?''
Cullion: ``Very thin. Yeah.''
Gaffett did not respond to several emails The Hummel Report sent asking to talk with her about the vote. Town Manager Nancy Dodge tells the Hummel Report in an email: ``Because of all the litigation - in place and expected - comments were limited."
Mancini: ``There was no real public debate about it.''
John Mancini is Cullion's lawyer. He is also a former city councilman in Cranston and well-versed in the state's Open Meetings Law.
Mancini: ``And what happened here was, they went into an executive session under the prong for litigation, which is a proper means to go into executive session, but then it was discovered that in fact, in executive session they discussed the merits of the competitive bids. Well, that's completely violative of not only the Open Meetings Act, but of the competitive bid statute.''
Mancini says two of the five council members had conflicts of interest but failed to disclose them or to recuse themselves. But his lawsuit, filed last month in Superior Court in Wakefield, goes to a much larger issue.
Mancini: ``The residents of Block Island can't get competitive bids and as result everything costs more. And it's not because they're 13 miles outside the mainland, it's because they have a governmental system that almost fosters a freeze out of anyone from the mainland to come and do business on the island. What you have here on Block Island is you have special interest groups and those special interest groups are these fiefdoms of families - and the Mcginneses are a a fiefdom of a very strong special interest group that has over decades been able to solidify very strong tentacles, if you will, and they're very visible."
Cullion: ``After that, the round of applause, the father of Mike McGinness rose up and decided this is where the public comment comes in and he made a speech about how the town has done the right thing here - these boys have done a good job and we're proud of you that you did the right thing today and...At that point I walked out to the applause. I don't know if they were applauding him or applauding me walking out.''
Mancini: ``The fear there is that you can't get a fair shake because there are these intertwined relationships, and they may exist because the island is isolated, but there are ways of handling it and the law and the statute provides for a mechanism in how you handle it.''
Lawyers for BIRM have responded to Cullion's lawsuit asking a judge to stop it from going forward.
They say Waste Hauler's BI continues to ``hurl unsubstantiated claims'' and accuses Cullion of including ``baseless allegations.'' Mancini believes if he is able to go forward and depose council members it's going to open up a legal can of worms.
Hummel: ``Conspire is a very strong word.''
Mancini: ``Conspire is usually used in the criminal sense in a RICO (racketeering) statute. This is the civil component of it and what we mean by conspire is that, is what did the council members know and from whom did they know it before they went into making their decision?''
Cullion: ``The message they're sending on this island is: Look what happened to Cullion - he bid the trash and he had by far the better bid, where did he go? So you know what everyone says? Don't bother bidding on Block Island.''
Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.