Judge clears way for Gwinnett trash plan

Gwinnett County's new solid waste plan enables the county to charge residents for 18 months of service in advance, and a Superior Court judge on Monday said he's not happy about it.

Judge Michael Clark nonetheless dismissed a request by Red Oak Sanitation of Gainesville to stop the county's plan on the basis that it restricted competition. He also accepted a settlement between the county and five other haulers who had sued over a 2008 solid waste plan that was later ruled unlawful. The settlement, among other things, provides each of those haulers with an exclusive collection zone under the new solid waste plan.

But Clark warned that his rulings Monday should not be taken as an endorsement of the county's plan.

"By no means am I saying the ordinance is constitutional and the settlement is constitutional," the judge said.

Clark took particular issue with two elements of the plan.

First, he said, the county has granted itself the power to bill residents for 18 months of trash service in advance. Charges will appear on property tax bills. This year's statement will include a $321 charge for service from July 1 of this year through December 2011.

"It's one thing to collect a fee for services rendered," Clark said. "It's another to collect a fee for a service to be rendered. If you can collect for 18 months, why not collect for 24?"

Second, the judge said he took issue with the way the county awarded the contracts. In his earlier ruling outlawing the 2008 solid waste plan, Clark said he cited particular problems with the process the county used in securing bids. But this time, he said, the county solved the problem by eliminating the bidding process altogether.

"I don't have a problem with the county contracting with haulers," he said. "I do have some concern with the way it was done."

Attorneys for the haulers and the county argued that state law and court precedent give counties wide latitude to conduct their business. Bidding for contracts, they said, is not required of counties or cities. They further asked for clarification on the judge's attitude about the constitutionality of the new solid waste plan.

Clark said he would review a brief the attorneys file citing their arguments as to the constitutionality of the ordinance and settlement.