Cedar Grove says Marysville manipulated public opinion

EVERETT — Cedar Grove Composting officials said Thursday they sought public records from the city of Marysville to demonstrate what they believe was a clandestine manipulation of public opinion by the city regarding odors blamed on the business.

These efforts by the city and the Tulalip Tribes, they said, also served to sabotage an agreement on a study of the source of the smell, reported around the Snohomish River Delta, using electronic equipment.

“Marysville thwarted the effort to introduce science into the investigation of odors,” said Michael Mann, a consultant hired by Cedar Grove.

The study was later started without participation from the city or the tribes. It’s expected to be concluded in the next few months.

The Everett composting company last year sued Marysville in Snohomish County Superior Court over the city’s withholding of emails between it and a consultant.

The city of Marysville was ordered Monday by a judge to pay more than $143,000 to Cedar Grove Composting for violations of the state public disclosure law related to the case.

The amount will more than make up for fines paid by Cedar Grove in recent years for odor violations in Everett and in Maple Valley. In the end, a fine of $119,000 — $27,000 for Everett violations — was applied to the company’s $200,000 contribution to the odor study.

The city supplied many emails between officials and Strategies 360, a Seattle-based public relations firm, to Cedar Grove but withheld others, claiming an exemption for attorney-client privilege. These emails contained discussions of legal strategy, city administrator Gloria Hirashima said.

Judge Richard T. Okrent ruled that 15 of those emails did not qualify under that standard, and therefore should have been disclosed. Okrent also ruled that the city neglected to track down 19 other emails, and should have released internal Strategies 360 emails regarding Cedar Grove.

Marysville has been paying $7,500 per month to Strategies 360 for several years for lobbying and publicity on transportation and other issues, including Cedar Grove, Hirashima said.

“Specifically,” Okrent wrote in his ruling, “I find that Marysville’s explanation regarding these documents — that they were not allegedly within the possession of or control of Marysville — was a situation only created to intentionally provide Marysville with ‘plausible deniability’ of Strategies’ activities and to attempt to insulate the documents created during those activities from production.”

The city disagrees, Hirashima said.

“Strategies is a separate business. It’s a private company,” she said. “They’re not public records, the public records act applies to government records.”

Emails showed that Strategies 360 distributed fliers in 2011 titled “Stop the Stench,” which placed the blame for an offensive odor in the area squarely on Cedar Grove.

These fliers were financed by the Tulalip Tribes and designed with input from Marysville, according to Cedar Grove. Hirashima disputes any city participation in the fliers.

Tulalip spokeswoman Niki Cleary said late Thursday she couldn’t immediately confirm whether the tribes backed the flier.

The fliers came after Marysville, Cedar Grove, the Tulalip Tribes, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and others had reached a preliminary agreement to do a scientific study of odors in the area, Mann said.

Marysville and the tribes later backed out, objecting to a plan to use electronic odor-detection monitors from Odotech of Montreal, Canada, a company with which Cedar Grove had done business before.

The Clean Air Agency and Cedar Grove went ahead with the $375,000 study last year. In addition to Cedar Grove’s contribution, the city of Seattle and King County, each of which send yard and food waste to Cedar Grove, put up $100,000 and $50,000, respectively. The Clean Air Agency is spending $25,000.

The 2011 fliers were misleading because they did not acknowledge the presence of other potential sources of odors, such as the Marysville wastewater treatment plant, Cedar Grove officials said.

Puget Sound Clean Air Agency inspectors traced several odor complaints to Cedar Grove in recent years, but none to the treatment plant or other nearby potential sources.

The city of Marysville did not try to hide its relationship with Strategies 360 or with resident Mike Davis, the most outspoken critic of Cedar Grove, Hirashima said.

Susan Thoman, vice president for corporate development at Cedar Grove, said the company and the city discussed an out-of-court settlement in the spring, but could not agree.

“We are sorry it’s gone this far; it’s unfortunate for everybody,” Thoman said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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