Benz settlement discussed at city

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The settlement of civil litigation between the city of Ridgecrest and its former vendor Benz Sanitation was the main topic of discussion at last week’s City Council meeting.

While the council and the public heard a statement prepared by City Attorney Keith Lemieux, the implications were also remarked on from the public microphone.

When Paul Benz Sr., proprietor of Benz Sanitation, pled guilty Sept. 26 to one charge of false reporting, it ended the civil suits and awarded the city $575,000 to cover the cost of the investigation, some of the attorney fees and an estimate of the unpaid franchise fees.

“The criminal case alleged Benz had illegally and fraudulently imported trash from Los Angeles County and deposited the trash in Kern County landfills.”

The News Review published an in-depth report on the history of the city’s franchise, and subsequent dispute, with Benz, as well as the civil and criminal cases that came as a result of that severed relationship. The contract was terminated in September 2011 when a court upheld the city’s interpretation that by continuing the contract it was in violation of its own ordnance by not putting it out to bid as required after 30 years.

The attorney’s report (also published in full on the News Review website) indicated that the city was first alerted to a potential irregularity in waste and recycling collection when subsequent vendor Waste Management reported a 40-percent drop in waste collection.

After the California Department of Justice sanctioned the Ridgecrest Police Department to conduct an investigation, officers gathered preliminary evidence that suggested Benz was collecting trash from customers in L.A. County near Lancaster, transporting it to the materials recovery facility in Techachapi, co-mingling that with Kern County trash and depositing the nonrecyclable waste in the Tehachapi landfill.

Benz is then accused of misreporting the numbers across their contracts in Kern County, which appeared to call into question whether Ridgecrest and other cities were diverting the state-mandated 50 percent from the waste stream into recycling.

The Benz facility was raided in March, when RPD officers executed search warrants, seized records and interviewed staff members.

“Virtually all of the information obtained supported the conclusion that Benz had been illegally importing waste,” read Lemieux’s report.

Among the methods of investigation employed by RPD were the placement of tracking devices on Benz trucks. GPS tracking of Benz trucks is one of the new requirements that came about as a result of Benz’ plea.

Lemieux also thanked the RPD and Sgt. Justin Dampier in particular, “for their professionalism and tireless work in this matter.”

During public comment, resident Paul Vander Werf asked what controls the city has in place to keep the city from being similarly taken advantage of again. “I don’t know all the details, and I’m not sure this was foreseeable, but this underscores the importance of internal audits.”

Resident Michael Neel said that, after reading of the latest development in the city’s dispute with Benz, “I guess it proves the people were right all along — that we were diverting enough and we didn’t need mandatory trash.”

He said that should compel the city to reevaluate its trash- and recycling-collection program (although the residential program is now subscription-based, not mandatory.)

Manuel Farmer, who spoke as a citizen though he is the local manager for Benz, said that he wanted the community to know that the company is still serving the residents in the county. “We’re not out of business,” he said.

“Paul Benz himself accepted the felony, not Benz Sanitation.”

Last week the News Review published excerpts of Benz statement released on the day of his arraignment, where he maintains his innocence despite his guilty plea. See also his complete statement on Page 4.

Story First Published: 2012-10-10