Durham manager feels heat

The City Council wants answers about a yard waste dump fire and the lack of a permit

Staff WriterOctober 3, 2006 

— Durham City Manager Patrick Baker told the City Council on Monday that he will spend "100 percent of his time" in the coming days to prepare a full report of his administration's supervision of a yard waste dump that caught fire.

The manager will make a presentation to the elected board at a work session Thursday.

Baker and his immediate subordinates have been under intense scrutiny over his administration's handling of the fire that started Sept. 10 and burned for 14 days, smothering nearby homes in smoke and forcing some residents to flee for hotels. Council members were further upset by revelations that the dump had been operating without the required permit for more than two years after state inspectors had uncovered numerous violations at the site, several of which related directly to insufficient fire prevention. The dump had previously caught fire in 2004.

Baker told council members at a Sept. 18 meeting that they were never briefed on the permitting problems because he had never been told himself. Mayor Bill Bell instructed Baker to prepare a report about "who knew what when and how far up the chain it went."

An article in Saturday's editions of the The News & Observer included excerpts from weekly briefing memos sent to Baker and his top aides that included numerous references to the city's efforts to get a new permit for the yard waste plant, dating back to May 2005.

The documents, titled "City Manager Executive Update" and marked "confidential," also included written warnings by solid waste officials that equipment shortages and the poor performance of a contractor working at the dump could lead to a fire. Baker acknowledged in an interview Friday that he received and read the updates, but he insisted that he still was unaware the dump was operating without a permit.

At the council meeting Monday night, Baker praised city workers for their "heroic" efforts to extinguish the fire and said he expects an application seeking a new state permit for the yard waste dump to be submitted within 10 days. Until that permit is granted, Durham will be required to truck its yard waste to a properly licensed dump in Alamance County.

The city manager then repeated his assertion that he did not know the dump was operating illegally before the fire. He then presented the council with information he said was omitted from the newspaper article that he said showed his administration's responsiveness to the problems at the yard waste operation in months before it spontaneously burst into flame.

Specifically, Baker took issue with a quote used from an update dated Dec. 31, 2005, that recounted how the facility was "inundated" with more compost mulch and leaves than it could process and expressed the urgent need for a specific piece of heavy equipment to "help push and efficiently store material." The article reported that another city department eventually loaned the yard an old tracked loader, though the requested new equipment is still on order and is not expected to arrive for at least a month.

Baker distributed records showing that the city had rented a tracked loader for two months early in the year before the borrowed equipment arrived. He also said that the money to buy the new machine was included in the most recent budget he recommended to the council, which was approved in June.

Baker said his administration worked hard to replace the poor-performing contractor at the yard waste plant and searched for a replacement. A contract with a new firm was signed, he said, days after the latest fire started.

Some members of the council indicated they were not impressed with the city manager's rebuttal. Bell said he looked forward to a more complete report Thursday about his core concern -- who knew what when.

Jackie Brown, a resident forced to leave her home because of the smoke, sat in the front row of the meeting room as Baker spoke, shaking her head. A close political confidante of the mayor, Brown is the president of Durham's Northeast Neighborhood Association.

"Either they're lying or they're incompetent," she said of the city manager and his aides. "Take your pick."

Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or mbieseck@newsobserver.com.

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