DALLAS - At a time when city services were on the chopping block, Dallas city sanitation officials were taking trips around the county and to Europe.
They were traveling at the invitation of a start-up company pushing a product that no one is sure the city even needs.
Last Saturday, you could hear hundreds of them as they crossed the Trinity River bridge. They were the voices of dissension. Students and community activists protesting the city's recent vote to force waste haulers to take all of the city's commercial waste to the McCommas Bluff Landfill in South Dallas.
That landfill is less than a two miles away from Paul Quinn College, where president Michael Sorrell is struggling to revive the image of his side of town.
"And if you double the amount of trash that comes here, the message you are sending to potential developers is ‘this is what you think of this community,'" Sorrell said.
In late September, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings cast the deciding vote to send all garbage to the McCommas landfill without further study. He said the opponents just didn't understand.
"I think this thing has been obfuscated so much that people are so confused by it," Rawlings said.
Directing all the trash to the city's landfill, also called flow control, is the first phase in what the city billed as a "radical idea" to recycle up to 90 percent of all the city's waste.
It’s an idea that was pushed last May at City Hall by George Gitschel, C.E.O. of a California Company called Organic Energy Corporation, or O.E.C. Gitschel said he designed a recycling plant in Roseville, California, that is the most advanced recycling plant in America.
It is the kind of green initiative that just might have convinced council members to send all commercial garbage to its landfill and make money.
“O.E.C. is offering to provide up to $50 million per year in revenue to Dallas," Gitschel said.
With a vote scheduled for September, city officials had to hurry.
So in July, the city spent $2,500 to fly Sanitation Director Mary Nix and Mayor Pro-Tem Tennell Atkins to California to look at Gitschel's design. Three weeks later, three of Nix's workers spent another $2,700 to visit the same plant in California and two other recycling facilities in Arizona, owned by another company.
Three weeks later, Gitschel organized a more exotic, seven-day trip, for the same three sanitation department workers, this time to Germany and England to look at similar recycling plants. The overseas trip cost taxpayers more than $10,000.
Yet according to the e-mails obtained by News 8, one of the workers reported back to Nix calling the recycling cost steep, about "100 dollars per ton". Dallas currently charges waste haulers about $21 per ton to dump. Nix responds back in the same e-mail, "sounds like not-a-good-fit for us?"
In all, the city spent more than $14,000 touring with Organic Energy Corporation and Gitschel.
News 8 also found an e-mail in which Nix and Gitschel apparently strategize on how to best market his plan at an upcoming city council meeting.
Nix compliments Gitschel on his "great speakers group." Nix then counsels Gitschel to speak "at the end of the meeting" because it "allows you to alter your message as may be appropriate." Gitschel then said "thank you" to Nix and tells her "our intention is to knock it out of the park."
News 8 has also learned O.E.C., formed last year, has never built a plant a recycling plant despite its web site depiction of already having a facility in Dallas.
As to their claim of being able to recycle 90 percent of all waste?
Even the California plant Gitschel said he designed can only recycle less than 50 percent of what it takes in. What's more, according to the plant's general manager, the facility was actually designed by a Canadian company called MachineX. Gitschel assisted only with the design concept, he said.
Dallas City Council Member Scott Griggs was one of seven who voted against flow control six weeks ago. Now that News 8 has shown him the trip costs and e-mail exchanges, Griggs said he believes the debate should be renewed.
"So on behalf of the taxpayers we have a duty,” Griggs said. “We always need to keep an arms length relationship with our vendors and we really need to look at competition and get multiple vendors bidding against each [other]."
The Dallas City Manager's office declined our request for an interview.
The city did provide us with this statement: “Travel was approved to explore the viability of recovery or waste resources for alternative use. It was prudent to determine the practicality of such facilities for Dallas."
While flow control is slated to take effect in January, opponents say they anticipate a lawsuit will be filed to prevent it.