REVIEWING THE CONTRACT; Law Professor: Its Language Is in the City's Legal Favor

Article excerpt

Byline: TIA MITCHELL

Mayor John Peyton said the city's position all along has been that the initial contract only gives Waste Management the right to operate the current 144-acre landfill at Trail Ridge. Several years ago Waste Management began asserting that the contract actually gives it the right to operate the entire site, around 978 acres.

This is at the crux of Peyton's argument in favor of renegotiating Waste Management's contract; he says the company told him it will sue if he doesn't.

Peyton says the contract is ambiguous enough to make him wary of pushing the issue and risking a court battle with Waste Management, the largest waste and environmental services company in North America.

Several City Council members have called for an advisory opinion from the courts and have questioned the strength of Waste Management's argument. If there is no evidence that Waste Management has the legal right to operate the entire Trail Ridge site, the best option, they say, is to put the contract out to bid.

Recently, the Times-Union asked Florida Coastal School of Law professor Cleveland Ferguson to review the 1991 contract. He is an associate professor at the school and teaches courses on contracts, commercial law and state constitutional law.

After reviewing the 29-page document, Ferguson concurred that the agreement expires at the life of the landfill. There are no expressed terms in the contract giving Waste Management the right to manage the entire site.

He said that, if he were a city lawyer, he would feel confident putting Trail Ridge out for bids.

The contract language makes it clear that both parties agreed in 1991 that Waste Management was obtaining rights to operate a landfill facility and not the entire site, Ferguson said. A clause that gives the city the right to use the site for other municipal solid waste management also seems to bolster the city's position, he said.

Ferguson also points out that the contract even makes provision for any perceived ambiguities. The contract says that any "doubtful or ambiguous provisions" should not be construed against the party that created the agreement, the city.

The professor wondered if the long-standing agreement has created such a symbiotic relationship with the city that the company has overreached.

"There might be a comfort level where the contractor believes it has more authority than it actually does," Ferguson said. "But that doesn't give them any more legal standing to enlarge their operations."

EXTRAS

To view the original contract with Waste Management and the latest version of the contract proposed by Mayor John Peyton, go to jacksonville.com

BY THE NUMBERS

12,614,935 TONS

Trash currently stored at Trail Ridge

2,591 TONS

Average amount of trash taken daily

$14.37

Average amount currently paid to Waste Management, per ton

978 ACRES

Approximate size of the Trail Ridge site

30,860

Tires found at the landfill, FY 2007-08

375

Average number of trucks that drop waste at Trail Ridge each weekday

TIMELINE

1986

July: City efforts to buy an 800-acre landfill site from a private company are thwarted in court. But the city and the landowner begin negotiations on a separate parcel of land near the St. Johns County line.

November: St. Johns County asks the state to block Duval County's efforts to build a landfill near the county line. …