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End of era proves bittersweet for 'Hazardous Helen'
Helen Venada received the thanks of county officials at the Feb. 26 County Council meeting for 24 years of service, much of that time as solid waste coordinator for San Juan County.
At the recognition ceremony, Venada received a fond farewell and a plaque extolling her "commitment, passion and leadership" in organizing the county hazardous waste roundups, which resulted in the collection and disposal of more than 500 tons of hazardous chemicals.
In response, Venada, known by many as "Hazardous Helen" for her leadership in the county's collection of hazardous waste, thanked the council for its recognition, thanked by name about two dozen people throughout the islands who worked with her and made her job, as she said, "rewarding and encouraging."
Consistent with her reputation for speaking her mind, Venada added, "I want to go on record that I did not choose to retire. I was laid off."
Venada has been active in the restructuring of county solid waste collection and disposal operations, especially during the last two years after voters rejected a ballot measure that would have enacted a "parcel fee" to generate additional funding for a county-run solid waste operation.
The ensuing privatization of the Orcas and San Juan transfer site operations and the creation of the Lopez Solid Waste Disposal District has contributed to multiple changes in solid waste division personnel, including elimination of Venada's position.
Reached after the ceremony, Public Works Director Frank Mulcahy praised Venada for her work and acknowledged that she "wanted to stay," but pointed to budget shortfalls and department restructuring that required the departure not only of Venada, a part-time employee, but also of two full-time employees, Elizabeth Anderson and Steve Alexander, both of whom worked for public works' solid waste division.
"I wish we had the money to keep them all," Mulcahy said, "but it just couldn't be done in the context of totally changing the way solid waste is handled in the county."
— Steve Wehrly