Columbia mulls ethics of councilman's offer

Columbia City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann has started a waste-disposal company and is targeting the city as one of his first clients.

City officials spend roughly $300,000 a year grinding residential yard debris into mulch. Rickenmann said his company, Waste 2 Energy, would do it for free.

"It was an opportunity for the city to save a lot of money," city manager Steve Gantt said. "We wanted to pursue it and see where it would go."

Council members decided to open up the debris-grinding project for a competitive bid and asked for proposals. Two companies responded. Last week, city staff chose Rickenmann's company over a competitor, McClam and Associates.

Council members have not voted on the proposal - the latest in a string of deals involving city elected officials and possible conflicts of interest that have prompted some to call for the city to draft a formal ethics policy.

"These issues swirl - from spouses as attorneys to council members serving as attorneys for agencies that get money from us," said Councilman Kirkman Finlay, who is running for mayor. "All of these issues need to be defined very clearly in the ethics guideline for council people, and everybody needs to sign it."

Columbia does not have a formal ethics policy for its elected officials. Instead, it relies on regulations from the State Ethics Commission.

Past ethics questions have included:

- A city loan to Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine's mother, who used the money to buy an office building and, then, leased it to her daughter's law firm. (Devine's mother has returned the money.)

- Councilwoman Belinda Gergel's husband, Richard, was the city's labor attorney prior to her election. Richard Gergel's law partners eventually formed a separate law firm to handle the city's legal work, which Richard Gergel says he does not profit from.

- Community Assistance Provider, a company whose vice president is married to Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, applied for a city loan to buy an apartment complex. The loan is pending.

Attempts to reach Devine and Gergel for comment were unsuccessful.

Waste 2 Energy makes money by converting organic material, such as food and garden waste, into energy and then selling that energy to power companies.

The food-and-garden waste produces a byproduct, which Rickenmann plans to grind into mulch and give away. He wants to mix the city's yard debris with the byproduct to form mulch, and then give all the mulch back to the city.

"There is no cost to the city and there is no gain to me," said Rickenmann, adding he will not withdraw his proposal. "I thought I was doing the right thing."

Normally, city officials select bids that meet the city's requirements and offer the lowest price. But with this proposal, city officials were asking for a free service.

In their proposal, McClam and Associates said they only could process certain types of yard debris and would require city workers to sort the debris before submitting it. Waste 2 Energy said it would accept the yard debris as is.

"That was primarily the deciding factor" in selecting Waste 2 Energy, said Missy Gentry, the city's public works director. "We, obviously, would like to bring it on the truck as is and dispose of it."

McClam and Associates is one of the city's frequent contractors, primarily doing water and sewer work. It also grinds yard debris for Berkeley and Lexington counties.

Owner Rusty McClam said he was surprised to see the city request proposals for a free project.

"It was kind of unusual. I don't know how it was put together or who made the decisions to put it together that way," McClam said. "We didn't see how anyone could do it for free. That's what they said they wanted, but once they selected the company then the negotiations for a contract would start," meaning there could be some payment.

"But it's our opinion that money can be saved by the city to change the way it's done now."

Rickenmann said his company would not make money off the deal because it would not be converting the city's yard debris to energy and would not be selling the mulch.

City Council has not awarded the contract. Under state law, Rickenmann would not be allowed to vote and the contract would have to pass by a unanimous vote.

"There wouldn't be a reason not to be for it if everything about it was done correctly," Mayor Bob Coble said. "I think Daniel has tried to comply with all the ethics laws and has done it in an above-board manner."