There was a renewed sense of optimism by the end of the Carver, Marion, Wareham Regional Refuse Disposal District Committee meeting on August 29 with the hiring of a new executive director with real vision, committee members remarked, after having fired its former executive director, Ray Pickles, in January after years of mismanagement and alleged financial fraud and embezzlement.
As Marion Town Administrator Paul Dawson stated earlier in the meeting, “This board has inherited a mess, quite frankly, and the next executive director is gonna have to help the board to right that ship.”
After three candidates were interviewed that evening, the committee, in a 7-1 vote, overwhelmingly chose Michelle Bernier as the one to “take the bull by the horns,” as committee member Marietta Maraccini put it.
Bernier said her experience has taken her all across the solid waste management landscape, from ‘bag-and-tag’ programs that are self-sustaining, to converting to ‘pay as you throw’ waste management, and has been all through Europe investigating alternative waste management practices.
“It’s my curiosity and the fact that I love this industry,” said Bernier when asked why she would be a good fit for the CMWRRDD. “I have a lot of experience that I can bring to your problem.” And it’s a huge problem, Bernier acknowledged. Carver, Marion, Wareham – “They’re very diverse communities trying to decide how to be served,” said Bernier.
“And I think it can be done,” continued Bernier. “I think it would be fun; it would be a challenge.”
Bernier said she has toured the CMWRRDD facilities, finding many similarities with the facility she has run. Right away she offered the committee a number of options for the future of the district, beginning by recommending that Carver and Wareham, like Marion, offer their own municipal curbside collection.
“This is my neck of the woods; I live here,” said Bernier. “I think I have direct experience to bring to your problem.”
Earlier in the meeting the committee lamented the imminent expiration of the CMWRRDD’s contract with Covanta that allows for waste disposal at its SEMASS facility in Rochester while reimbursing the CMWRRDD from 75%-100% for various aspects of the district’s operations and payroll. That contract expires December 31, 2020, and the committee was feeling the pressure to figure out in such a short time “what we want to be when we grow up,” a term that was repeated all throughout the meeting drenched in pessimism. Bernier, however, offered the committee a much more optimistic perception of those dwindling two years.
“You’re lucky,” Bernier said. “You still have a year and a half of Covanta, so you’ve got a life preserver; you’ve got a year and a half before you hit the wall. It’s not gonna be easy – transition is tough – but you have the money to cover it.”
The committee asked Bernier what her plan would be for the first six months as the district’s executive director.
“You need to figure out where you want to go and then, over the next six months, the executive director [would] present you with possibilities to get to where you think you want to be,” said Bernier. “I think washed hands is not good for any town – not providing any services,” Bernier cautioned. In contrast to prior suggestions of some CMWRRDD Committee members, Bernier advised, “I think you need to stay as a district. I don’t think any of you want to absorb your current trash collection into your [municipal] budgets.”
The key, said Bernier, is to make the operation self-sustaining by using Covanta funds as “seed money.”
“You may need to use [district trash] bags at some point,” said Bernier. Purchasing district trash bags would be the “fairest way” to cover the cost of the operation, she said. “It’s not the only way. Once you have some suggestion or ideas … then the next six months is to lay out the plan and then you’re going to have to start with the public.”
The public will likely resist the change, Bernier suggested, adding, “With pay-as-you-go, you make yourself self-sustaining.
“It’s gonna be painful,” she said. “It’s like taking a Band-Aid off.”
The district could continue with each town serviced according to their individual needs, while remaining under the umbrella of a district, Bernier suggested. “Whatever decision you make, you need the district. I think [the district needs to] stay and it needs to be a separate entity that handles that mess,” not the individual municipalities.
Bernier’s 6-month plan: roll it out incrementally, one town at a time.
“Whoever’s ready,” said Bernier. “If you’re going to do curbside, then it’s Marion first.”
The committee considered making a decision at a later date, but it soon became evident that the committee had enough confidence to make up its mind that night.
“She’s been through all of it and doing what we’re looking to do,” said one committee member.
As Maraccini pointed out, “She’s been coming to our meetings. She knows what the industry is. She knows our problem, our strengths and weaknesses.”
“And she still applied!” exclaimed several committee members all at once.
Committee member and Marion Selectman Norm Hills chose Bernier for the job, saying, “Without a doubt. She knows what she’s getting into,” said Hills. “She’s actually happy to get into it!”
“Clearly,” Hills said, Bernier is a “visionary.”
“She had a plan, an idea; it was clear in her head, a step-by-step process,” said Hills. “She is what we need.”
“I was very impressed,” said CMWRRDD Committee Chairman Steve Cushing.
Bernier will join the district pending contract negotiations, bringing her 17 years of experience in solid waste management in North Attleboro. In addition to her experience in solid waste management, Bernier was also the assistant to the town administrator and holds a Masters degree in English and was a teacher for a number of years. She was also a practicing paralegal for several years. Bernier lives in Mattapoisett.
The committee chose former Fairhaven executive secretary of 27 years Jeffrey Osuch, who was also the DPW director for ten years prior, as the alternative candidate should contract negotiations with Bernier fail. The committee thanked a third candidate interviewed that evening, John Healey, for his interest.
Carver, Marion, Wareham Regional Refuse Disposal District Committee
By Jean Perry