HOUSTON — Twenty-three drivers and four executives will face disciplinary action following an internal audit the Solid Waste Management Department released after KHOU 11 Investigates uncovered widespread mishandling of curbside recycling.
Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement saying the mishandling of curbside recycling is "unacceptable" and that disciplinary actions for executive level staff will include suspension.
"What happened is unacceptable," he said. "I am personally disappointed, and I am disappointed on behalf of the public served by Solid Waste and those Houstonians who are committed to the City’s Recycling Program."
(Editor's note: See Mayor Turner's full statement at the bottom of this article.)
Several Houston city council members criticized the internal audit.
“This is an effort to whitewash the event,” council member Mike Knox said earlier Thursday.
The 12-page audit report, drafted by a senior auditor within the department, identified 532 incidents of mishandled recycling across the city from January to June. It found more than 1,300 tons of recyclables ended up at the landfill rather than processed properly.
“There’s no way that that many drivers, in that many locations, were doing the same misdeed without some direction from their supervisors or the higher ups that be,” Knox said.
The audit never mentions any directives or orders from above. It did state drivers did an “excellent job of documenting” their daily behaviors and management “did not react and respond” to that documentation.
Knox said if drivers were intent on violating policy, they would have likely tried to conceal the wrongdoing.
“There’s no way on this earth that somebody who was doing something against the rules or regulations is going to document what they’re doing,” Knox said. “Which indicates further to me that management was the one that was directing this activity."
Knox said he fears low-level truck drivers will be fired as scapegoats while the leadership at the Solid Waste Management Department ultimately will not be held accountable.
“I think this is an unabashed effort on the part of the administration to protect the management of the Solid Waste Management Division from further scrutiny,” he said.
Knox is calling for an independent, third-party auditor to step in. Four other council members agreed outside oversight is needed.
“Whoever is giving (drivers) direction should be held accountable, and I want to see the controller do an audit immediately as well and for it to be presented to council,” said council member Brenda Stardig.
“I believe it is imperative that the administration retain an outside auditor to provide greater transparency while eliminating the prospect of workers having to evaluate themselves,” said council member Dwight Boykins.
“I always welcome an outside entity to look into the issue to improve transparency and further open the eyes of the city department to issues that they may too close to in order to be objective,” said council member Dave Martin.
“The city controller needs to look at this,” said council member Michael Kubosh.
A spokesperson for council member Robert Gallegos said he is in the process of reviewing the audit but intends to the ask Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes to come before the Council Committee on Regulation and Neighborhood Affairs to review the findings and corrective actions the department expects to implement.
Council member Jack Christie said he doesn’t think another audit is necessary but just wants mishandled recycling to stop.
Mayor Turner released the following statement:
"The City of Houston is committed to recycling and to providing residents with the highest level of service possible, as evident by our new state-of-the-art recycling facility that opened this year, and the more than 400 dedicated Solid Waste Management employees who have been working, for the most part, 7 days a week on behalf of all Houstonians.
"An internal audit by the City’s Solid Waste Management Department shows that 11.4 percent of the recyclable materials collected from curbside bins was hauled by city crews to landfills instead of the proper destination at the recycling facility -- during the first five months of this year. The other 88.6 percent was handled properly.
"This was a violation of City policy. On April 24th of this year, I issued a directive to the Solid Waste Department and employees reminding them of the City’s policy that recyclables should be deposited at the recycling center and not placed in the landfill. Despite that instruction, the internal audit reveals that some employees continued to carry recyclables to the landfill and their supervisors failed to provide proper oversight and correct their actions.
"23 employees (drivers) will face corrective disciplinary action in accordance to HR policies and the employee labor agreement. Four executive level staff, in supervisory roles, will face disciplinary actions including suspension.
"What happened is unacceptable. I am personally disappointed, and I am disappointed on behalf of the public served by Solid Waste and those Houstonians who are committed to the City’s Recycling Program.
"The Solid Waste Department is working to implement several recommendations outlined in the audit including additional internal controls and increased employee training. In addition, I have instructed the Solid Waste Department to place signage in the district offices stating clearly that all recyclables must be deposited at our recycling facility and not the landfill.
"I am making sure that 100 percent of the recyclables left by residents in their curbside bins will be recycled and that we restore full confidence in this public service."