Dumpster Diving

Pembroke Park seems too small for scandal. A south Broward County town with fewer than 6,000 inhabitants and a median income around $25,000, it has few things worth stealing. This tends to ward off corruption.

At the monthly commission meetings — held in a Town Hall chamber that Pembroke Park shares with West Park — it's common for the eight people on the dais to outnumber the audience, and town officials are liable to greet first-time visitors to their meeting with a curious glance.

Last month, John Ferguson, a veteran of South Florida's rough-and-tumble trash-hauling industry, came before those officials to inform them of an opportunity.

Ferguson was a familiar face. He had formerly worked as area president of All Service Refuse, a division of the Fort Lauderdale-based trash-hauling giant Republic Services. In that capacity, Ferguson had inked a contract with Pembroke Park giving All Service the exclusive right to haul the town's commercial waste for five years, until 2005, when it was renewed for another five-year term. The contract was good for $1.2 million in gross revenue last year. In exchange, All Service paid the town 20 percent of that, which came out to $222,000.

This time, Ferguson was not speaking to commissioners on behalf of All Service. He left the company in January 2006, not long after he was found to have had a role in the intimidation of a Sunrise commissioner, Sheila Alu, who dared to express a desire to put the town's contract with All Service out to bid.

Ferguson came to Pembroke Park this time as a representative of a much smaller trash-hauling company, Public Waste Services, based in Pompano Beach. And he brought a letter. It was on Pembroke Park Town Hall letterhead, dated July 11, 2005, and signed by then-Mayor John P. Lyons. In it, Lyons declared his town's intention to not automatically renew the All Service contract in 2005 for another five years. Instead, Lyons asks that the town renew the contract on a year-to-year basis.

Lyons died a year ago, at the age of 82. He was memorialized in obituaries as the mayor so invested in his town that he mowed the lawns and raked the leaves of negligent residents.

This letter from beyond the grave, Ferguson explained, gave the town the right to change the terms of its contract with All Service. His attorney Frank Sinagra added his legal opinion that the commission needed only vote to ratify the letter to honor the expressed intent of its legendary mayor.

Then, Ferguson hastened to add, the town would be free to negotiate a trash-hauling contract with his new company, Public Waste, at terms more lucrative than the town's current contract.

But for Pembroke Park commissioners, it wasn't quite so simple: If Lyons wanted to change the terms of the contract two years ago, why didn't he tell other city officials? It wasn't like Lyons to act unilaterally. At the August meeting, Commissioner Howard Clark "remarked that he had a problem that Mayor Lyons, who had served for 16 years, would bind the commission without bringing the matter to the commission," the minutes read.

That's not all that's strange. If Lyons wrote the letter in July 2005 and he truly wanted the city to have flexibility in its trash-hauling contract, why didn't he raise his voice three months later, when the contract with All Service renewed for another five-year term?

It seems fortunate, then, that the letter is initialed by Town Manager Dr. Robert Levy. At the commission meeting last month, the commissioners quickly turned to him. "Dr. Levy indicated that they were his initials but he did not remember much about the situation except that Mayor Lyons had discussions with officials of [All Service] and this was the result," say the minutes. "Dr. Levy added that the letter went out and he did not know what happened after that."

So Levy vouches for the letter's authenticity. But there is one more set of initials on the letter, of the town's office supervisor, Meg Strobel, who took dictation from the mayor and might remember writing up this letter. Since Strobel was not present at the meeting last month, the commissioners agreed to investigate before moving to change the town's contract with All Service.

That investigation, it seems, only cast more doubt on the letter's authenticity. Town Attorney Christopher Ryan says that changes in the trash-hauling contract can be made only through communications for which there are registered-mail receipts. "We don't have any record of the letter being sent to All Service by registered mail," he says.

This detail, Ryan adds, is significant enough to nullify the Lyons letter. That's the official reason that no commissioner moved to change the contract with All Service.

"Further information has come in which makes this [issue] dead as a doornail," Commissioner Clark says.

Strobel did not return calls or respond to e-mails asking whether she typed the Lyons letter. And Clark declined to summarize Strobel's statements to officials investigating the letter's origin.

Clark directed New Times' questions to Levy. After all, no one worked as closely with Lyons, and Levy is the only town official who says unequivocally that the letter is genuine.

Last week, after a Pembroke Park Commission workshop, Levy said that the letter reflected the late mayor's intentions but that the town would not change its trash-hauling contract because no commissioner made a motion to ratify the letter. "We're going to let sleeping dogs lie," he said.

In addition to his job managing Pembroke Park, Levy is a member of the Plantation City Council. In that capacity, Levy received several thousand dollars in campaign contributions from All Service and related companies and lobbyists during his reelection campaign in 2005, when Ferguson was still at the company's controls.

Ferguson did not return calls for comment. Public Waste Service executive Michael Savino hung up the phone after a reporter introduced himself. Neither he nor company manager Nicholas Cascione returned messages.

Ferguson's former employers are more forthcoming. "There are a few things here that are suspect," All Service spokesman Will Flower says. "How does John Ferguson have this letter when we don't have it and the city doesn't have it?"

Flower stops short of calling the Lyons letter a forgery, saying only that if Pembroke Park had tried to ratify the letter, it would have prompted All Service to sue. In that case, Flower says with a chuckle, "I would look forward to Mr. Ferguson's deposition."

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Thomas Francis