Deck the Halls With Waste and Folly

Just don't ask too many questions about a sweetheart trash contract in Florida's most complacent city

Sometimes, all it takes is a single, seemingly benign question to disturb the balance of a deeply complacent town.

So it is in Sunrise, a community that from all its outward appearances is just another sprawling west Broward County suburb where nothing as interesting as political scandal ever seems to happen.

Because it has no downtown, Sunrise feels smaller than its population of 90,000. Many of its residents are retired, not inclined to wander outside the peaceful, familiar environs of their condominiums, which hug verdant country clubs and man-made ponds, secluded by ten-foot-high walls from the city's wide boulevards, all cluttered with strip malls and traffic.

Hemmed in by the Everglades, traffic is as rhythmic and unhurried as the tide, moving always in the same direction, a formula that during rush hour can make the 13-mile trek to downtown Fort Lauderdale take 90 minutes. One can hardly blame harried Sunrise commuters if upon arriving home, they might be inclined to treat their bungalows like bomb shelters, their cul-de-sacs like fortresses. If they do venture back out, it might be to seek diversion in a Florida Panthers game at the BankAtlantic Center or for the sake of spending some of that hard-earned money in the shops of Sawgrass Mills. Soon, Sunrise will be the only Florida city that will have an Ikea, as it was the only Florida city placed on Barbra Streisand's fall concert tour.

Sunrise City Commission meetings cannot compete with such attractions, and the commissioners don't try. They conduct their business before an audience that by meeting's end dwindles to about a dozen — and most of those are not activists or interested residents; they're political players: city workers, union officials, past and future politicians.

Nor can Sunrise residents be very easily coaxed into voting. The retired condo dwellers may be too concerned with their association's government to remember that the city also has one. Turnout in Sunrise's last municipal election, in 2005, was an anemic 16 percent, two points lower than the countywide rate, and even that was Sunrise's best effort in recent memory.

But no one in Sunrise City Hall seems to complain about citizen apathy; rather, they credit themselves with having governed so wisely as to have earned the residents' abiding trust.

And for their part, the residents may be pleased that for the past several years, they have not had to read many articles about official corruption in the Sun-Sentinel or Miami Herald. Surely, they appreciate the city's streak of having lowered the property-tax millage rate 11 years in a row. The streets are paved smooth. The grass in the parks gets mowed. And twice a week, residents' trash cans are emptied and hauled to an incinerator. Out of sight, out of mind.

If that last service — the garbage — tended to run a bit expensive, it was still only a few dollars more than most other South Florida cities. Hardly enough to provoke citizen revolt.

For the commission, renewing the All Service Refuse contract has always been a mere formality. The company has hauled trash in Sunrise since the late 1960s. For decades, it never had to go through a competitive-bidding process with another trash hauler. Sunrise is All Service's biggest contract. For Sunrise, All Service represents its most costly franchise.

This relationship has lasted for about the same period as another tradition, one that to a casual observer might seem unrelated: that Sunrise commissioners are almost always appointed before they are elected. That is, a sitting commissioner might retire or take another job or die, and the remaining commissioners would select a new one. In the election to follow, that commissioner would have all the advantages — fundraising, for starters — of being an incumbent.

For these reasons and perhaps because of the city's climate of unruffled complacency, the city's government enjoys a continuity rare in politics. For the past 20 years, power has been concentrated among a small group of men for whom the electorate is treated as delicately as a sleeping dragon.

But by happenstance, several contentious issues roused voters in 2001, and though turnout was a microscopic 13 percent, two nonincumbents were finally elected as commissioners: Don Rosen and Sheila Alu.

In 2005, Alu asked the one question no one had dared ask before: Why does the city not invite another garbage contractor to compete with All Service Refuse?

Even if a competitive bid does not produce cheaper service for Sunrise residents, Alu reasoned, it at least shows the citizens (for Alu presumes they care) that their government is acting in good faith, that it has nothing to hide.

What she didn't know was that Sunrise did have something to hide: In this city, the trash hauler enjoys major clout. All Service gets the Sunrise contract without competition and public officials get showered with campaign cash and favors, none more so than Sunrise Mayor Steven Feren and Commissioner Joseph Scuotto.

Since her query, Alu has seen the other side of the company. "I never in my wildest imagination thought that by simply putting the garbage contract out to bid, I would have to fear for my life and the safety of my daughter," she says. "I suffered severe emotional distress. [I sent] my daughter [away] for a month. I even had to buy a gun, and I never wanted to do that."

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