Clean Tahoe Program praised amid controversy

South Tahoe Refuse Co. is not planning to take over the Clean Tahoe Program, one of the refuse company's owners said, even though a grand jury report said taxpayers could save $90,000 or more per year if they did.

"You guys are amazing, and we work very well together," South Tahoe Refuse co-owner John Marchini said during a meeting of the Clean Tahoe board last week.

Clean Tahoe's services include picking up litter, maintaining trash bins in public places, removing illegally dumped items and coordinating California Coastal Cleanup Day at the South Shore. The program is funded primarily through a surcharge on city residents' trash bills and county residents' parcel-tax bills.

South Tahoe Refuse picks up garbage and provides recycling services.

In a report issued in March, the El Dorado County Civil Grand Jury said nearly $700,000 could be saved during the next 10 years if South Tahoe Refuse assumed the responsibilities of the Clean Tahoe Program. Clean Tahoe officials have disputed those findings, in part because they were based on budget figures from 2002-03.

Clean Tahoe will provide financial documents to support its position as part of its response to the grand jury. The Clean Tahoe board will review the response at its next meeting, scheduled for May 22.

The review by the civil grand jury - which provides oversight of local government and makes recommendations to improve government operations - followed an investigation by South Lake Tahoe police into the financial practices of Clean Tahoe's former program director, Tim Stockton. The police report detailed 11 incidents of possible financial irregularities in 2005 and 2006 that raised concerns among Clean Tahoe board members.

The report also raised questions about whether South Lake Tahoe City Councilman Ted Long, who was president of the Clean Tahoe board at the time, was providing sufficient oversight of the program's finances. Long permitted Stockton on several occasions to sign Long's name to Clean Tahoe checks, according to the investigation and Long's statements to the Tribune.

Long and Stockton said the investigation was politically motivated.

El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe reviewed the police department's report and found "insufficient basis" to file criminal charges associated with the investigation. But Uthe asked the grand jury to review Clean Tahoe's fiscal and management practices.

And so, the grand jury report, with its focus on whether South Tahoe Refuse could do Clean Tahoe's job more cost-effectively, came as a surprise to some who were expecting more discussion of issues covered in the police investigation.

In addressing Clean Tahoe's financial management, the grand jury report states: "In the investigation of Clean Tahoe's management of funds, financial controls were found to be deficient. However, the deficiencies are in the process of being corrected."

"To me, that's missing the assignment," said Michael Phillips, current Clean Tahoe board president. "You would think: What were those deficiencies, and how are they being addressed?"

Uthe, who requested the grand jury investigation, said: "It was a little unexpected. They had a slightly different focus than we anticipated."

But Uthe said the grand jury was within its authority in comparing Clean Tahoe with South Tahoe Refuse, and he is satisfied that his question had been answered.

"I'm glad they had a look at it. ... People need to have confidence they (Clean Tahoe) are spending the money correctly, and now they can," he said.

Long said the grand jury report, along with Uthe's decision not to file charges, shows there was no wrongdoing.

"How many people have to look at it and not find anything wrong?" Long said this week.

But Long also feels questions remain unanswered. He contends that some members of the Clean Tahoe board violated California's open meeting law when it formulated accusations against Stockton. Long also claims that Clean Tahoe board president Michael Phillips used Clean Tahoe staff to work on Phillips' private business, and that the program is not receiving all the funds it is entitled to from El Dorado County.

Phillips said Long's allegations are untrue. A former Clean Tahoe staffer did some work for him on her personal time, and "everybody's paying their fair share" for work done by the program, including the county, Phillips said.

"He is trying to throw up a smokescreen to take the heat away from him," Phillips added.

Despite what he feels are unanswered questions in the grand jury report, Phillips said he's ready to move on. Stockton, the former program director, resigned in September 2006, and current staff are following the program's written policies, correcting any problems concerning managing finances, Phillips said. On the bright side, the investigation and grand jury report may have raised awareness of the Clean Tahoe Program and all the good it does, Phillips said.

"The program is working really good," said Phillips, adding that he's ready to "let the negative energy go away."

The Clean Tahoe Program recently received a strong endorsement from City Councilman Jerry Birdwell, who is the city of South Lake Tahoe's current representative on the Clean Tahoe board.

At the council's April 15 meeting, Birdwell disagreed with the grand jury's suggestion that South Tahoe Refuse take over Clean Tahoe's operations. Council members agreed to discuss a possible response to the grand jury's report at a future council meeting.

"Clean Tahoe is doing an excellent job. ... I'm very pleased with them," Birdwell said. "They give the community a much-needed service."

But Birdwell offered one criticism.

"Clean Tahoe has become a political football for some people, and I don't like that," he said.


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