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April 10, 2015
When garbage hauler Kevin McGill was jailed recently for beginning his shift way before the crack of dawn in an Atlanta suburb, his story went viral and generated truckloads of outrage.
McGill’s troubles started when he appeared in municipal court in February after being cited for violating an ordinance in Sandy Springs, Ga., that restricts trash collection to the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He had evidently started his route shortly after 5 a.m. one day. McGill, a Waste Management employee, didn’t have an attorney and accepted a plea deal in lieu of a trial. A judge, upon the recommendation of the city prosecutor, sentenced McGill to 30 days in jail. The 48-year-old agreed to serve on weekends so he could keep his day job.
In early March, Kimberly Bandoh, a local attorney who took up McGill’s case later, says that her client was caught off guard because he had never before been involved with the criminal justice system. She says it was absurd that her client, on the job for about three months, was sentenced instead of warned, and that Waste Management should have been held responsible for McGill’s schedule.
The court backpedaled on March 10 when it amended McGill’s sentence to time served and suspended further probation.
“There are times when taking a step back provides the opportunity for better perspective,” the Sandy Springs solicitor’s office said in a statement. “In retrospect, the actions of the court with regards to Mr. McGill’s sentence for violating the city’s noise laws, was disproportionate to a first-time offense.”
Chief prosecutor Bill Riley had told local media that he recommended jail time for McGill because fines alone had not prevented early waste pickups from being a recurring problem in Sandy Springs, which has privatized most of its city services.
McGill is still on the job in Sandy Springs, says Marla Prince, a Georgia-based spokeswoman for Waste Management, which has its headquarters in Houston.
He did violate a longstanding company policy by speaking to reporters, she says. However, the brouhaha over his jail sentence has prompted the trash giant to revise it policy and provide an attorney for any employee making a court appearance.
“It was an unfortunate situation and we regret the situation for Kevin and his family,” she says. “He was caught up in something that couldn’t be predicted. We’re doing everything we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
However, Barry Shanoff, general counsel for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) based in Silver Spring, Md., doesn’t pity McGill. McGill’s predicament should serve as a cautionary tale for trash haulers and municipalities nationwide
“This guy violated company policy in two instances,” Shanoff says. “He started his shift too early and then he talked to the press. I don’t have a lot of sympathy.... [B]ut Waste Management can’t be blameless here. When this guy came to the yard to get his truck, the yard supervisor should have asked him what time he intended to start his shift.”
Even so, he adds, municipalities should target companies, not individuals, when a law is broken.
“Every time a municipality goes after a sanitation worker, the public perception is, ‘Hey, this guy is getting jerked around,’” Shanoff says. “Waste Management is the one that should be writing a check or doing penance in some way. If the company has a bad employee, I assume they have a progressive disciplinary process, and they should be using it.”
Shanoff says he can empathize with rattled residents of Sandy Springs who complained when they heard McGill’s trash truck illegally grinding away before 7 a.m.
“It’s downright annoying,” he says. “Where I live, in a suburb of Washington, franchisees can’t go near the cans until 7 a.m. If there were a 5 a.m. pickup in my neighborhood, the phones would be ringing off the hook.”
So, what are the lessons other trash haulers should learn from this debacle?
“Train your employees,” Shanoff cautions. “And start taking responsibility for what your employees do.”
Waste Management has made a note of that.
“Ordinances are in place for a reason,” Prince says. “We remind all our drivers that it is their continued responsibility to respect and follow all the rules and ordinances of the city.
Elizabeth H. McGowan, an award-winning energy and environment reporter based in Washington, D.C., writes a weekly Industry Buzz article for Waste360. She was the D.C. correspondent for Crain Communications' Waste & Recycling News, and has written for numerous other publications since beginning her career at daily newspapers in Wisconsin. In 2013, she won the Pulitzer Prize in the national reporting category for an investigative series published in InsideClimate News that revealed how the nation’s oil pipeline infrastructure isn’t measuring up to federal safety standards.
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