A Slow Burn

One wavering Cochise County official feels the incinerator debate's heat

The sullen sun was beating a bitter retreat. But things were just heating up inside Whetstone's taciturn fire department, where residents--furious over a highfalutin' garbage burner slated for their backyard--were turning Cochise County's political machine on its head.

At the center of this rancorous June 14 parley was Global Energy Resources, or GER. The year-old California company was lusting to build a garbage-to-gas incinerator here in little Whetstone, a rural burg just north of Sierra Vista. And Richard Searle, a GOP swing-vote on the three-man county Board of Supervisors, was getting an unhappy earful about the project from local folks.

Among them was Jim Wales, owner of Whetstone Pottery and Fountains. "I don't think we should even be talking about putting anymore crap in Whetstone," said Wales, according to the Sierra Vista Herald. "You're going to ruin our property values. We should have a right to vote on what goes here. I'm going to fight this thing tooth and nail."

Searle has long been "officially neutral" regarding the project. Now, however, he seemed to get the point. "This issue doesn't appear to be going any further," he told the rancorous crowd.

His observation was greeted with a jubilant roar.

But Searle's shift is no doubt raising stifled whines from fellow Republican Supervisor Pat Call, who's emerged as GER's top cheerleader on the board. Call has reportedly responded by turning up the heat. "Pat is putting the heavy hand on Richard," says Paul Newman, third man on the board and a steady Democratic critic of the $50 million proposed incinerator.

Attempts to obtain comment by calling Call failed; the elusive supervisor didn't respond to numerous phone messages from the Weekly.

Searle is also fielding intense pressure from the county's conservative, pro-business GOP muckety-mucks, says Newman. That shouldn't be surprising, he adds. "After all, they're the ones who helped put Richard in office."

For his part, Searle denies being pressured by Cochise GOP mandarins--or by Pat Call. "Actually, we've had no meetings on this issue at all," Searle says. At the same time, he's received "several calls from GER, concerned about where I'm sitting on the situation."

So where does he sit? Searle says he's against signing a memorandum of understanding, the first step of a 20-year contractual agreement with GER. "I would say that I'm not in favor of an MOU at this time. I wasn't comfortable with the terms."

Those terms include "the amount of garbage we'd be having to commit," around 78,000 tons annually. "I question our ability to generate that much at this time. Also, we're committing to 20 years of supplying garbage and recyclables at no cost. In all reality, some time or another, that garbage may have value."

Thus, the political pendulum has begun swinging against a proposal that once seemed a slam-dunk for Cochise County's good ol' boys. This marks a big win for regular folks who don't hanker for a lousy trash burner on their doorstep.

It's been a longtime coming for a project hustled into Cochise last fall by L.H. Hamilton, the county's facilities manager. Hamilton has been sneaky about his ties to several key players in the incinerator proposal, including project manager Robert Brown and a high-ranking salesman with General Electric named Paul McGuire. General Electric stands to make a tidy sum by providing generators for the incinerator.

Searle and Newman only learned of these connections during an interview with a Tucson Weekly reporter.

Tom Wheeler isn't surprised. He was mayor of Bisbee in the 1990s when Hamilton worked there as city manager. "We got rid of L.H. in '96," Wheeler says, noting that Hamilton ignored policies for awarding city contracts and tried to hire an engineering firm on his own. Hamilton was also known for whiling away the hours playing video poker, alleges the former mayor. "Basically, he just wasn't performing his job."

Nor is Wheeler surprised that Hamilton is thick in the GER deal. "My gut feeling is that if his buddies are involved in the project, somebody's going to sell a bunch of equipment. I'm sure he's getting something out of it."

Former County Supervisor Les Thompson held Searle's spot on the board when the incinerator project first surfaced. Considered another big GOP booster of GER, Thompson says he was aware of Hamilton's cronies. "I had known that ... but I don't know how far their ties went. I knew that L.H. was one of the reasons (GER) came to Cochise County."

Hamilton didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, outside Jim Wales' shop, just down the road from Whetstone's fire department, is a lush jungle of clay animals, lovely fountains and terracotta pottery, warming to the morning sun. But inside, Wales is already hot. "These county officials have a habit of just sticking these kinds of things out in Whetstone," says the stout, otherwise-friendly fellow. "We hadn't even seen Searle around here until this came up."

His jaw sets as he leans angrily against the counter. "You know, my wife says I shouldn't speak up about this stuff, that it could be bad for business. But these politicians seem to just have their own agenda regardless of what we say. And we're getting tired of it."

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