Clearwater has not recycled since July; solid waste official resigns

Clearwater has failed to process any residential recyclable materials since last July, a major lapse that led to the resignation of the city’s solid waste assistant director this week, officials confirmed Thursday.

The breakdown involved thousands of tons of materials left at the curb by city residents, and kept it from getting to Waste Management’s center in Ybor City. Instead, the materials were sent to the Pinellas Waste-to-Energy Plant with the regular garbage, according to interim City Manager Jennifer Poirrier.

Poirrier said she received a tip about the issue from an employee in December and immediately began investigating. She said she questioned solid waste assistant director Bryant Johnson, who assured her recycling was occurring.

She then requested a series of records from Johnson. On Friday, Poirrier said she discovered a letter that Johnson received from Waste Management in November stating it was discontinuing its contract with Clearwater because the city had not delivered recyclables to the Ybor City facility since July.

She said Johnson resigned in lieu of termination on Monday.

“Disappointed. Disgusted,” Poirrier said of the situation.

She said the city initiated an interim arrangement with Waste Management earlier this week, so recycling has already restarted.

Poirrier said she did not have an estimate of how many tons of recycling had been diverted to the waste-to-energy plant in the past six months. But in 2018, the city collected 19.2 million pounds of plastic containers, glass bottles, metal cans, mixed paper and newspaper, according to the city’s website.

Clearwater’s solid waste department has been somewhat in turmoil recently with high turnover and vacant positions. Poirrier said the department currently has no controller or senior accountant.

Longtime director Earl Gloster retired in November.

Poirrier said she believes recycling was not occurring because of problems with equipment and personnel.

“There are just a lot of questions we don’t have the answers to right now,” she said.

The City Council named Poirrier interim city manager on Jan. 5 after voting 3-2 to fire City Manager Jon Jennings, largely due to communication failures.

After the discovery that recycling was not occurring, the city’s innovation director, Micah Maxwell, has been assigned to serve as solid waste director to continue investigating the issue. Finance staff has also been assigned to assist, Poirrier said.

Poirrier said the city was planning to issue a news release to explain the situation. Mayor Frank Hibbard also said he wanted the city to be transparent with residents about the failure and measures taken to correct it.

“I was appalled when I found out about it for a number of reasons,” Hibbard said. “First of all, it was a breach of trust with our residents, and secondly the fact that it wasn’t caught sooner.”

Hibbard said he wants residents to be assured their recyclables are now being picked up and delivered to the Ybor City plant.

“It’s just unacceptable,” he said. “We’ve got to gain everybody’s trust back, but the first way to do that is admit the mistake.”