Guest Column: How did we get here?

Impressions from the Jan. 30 Winnebago County Board

Special Meeting

I arrived at the courthouse at approximately 4:45 p.m. Jan. 30 to find the Board Court Room approximately one-third full. Only two board members were in attendance at this time.

We were steadily joined by several interested parties and another 24 Board members. By 5:20 p.m., it was standing room only.

I felt comfortable as I looked around and noticed several familiar faces. Many of these people have been in my home over the past several weeks. Lately, we have had an open-door policy in my home. My neighbors are welcome at any time, whether they live around the block, one-half mile, three-quarter miles or any measurable distance from my home. I may not remember everyone’s name, but I can tell you what subdivision they live in and how far they live from the parcel of land Wight Partners has set its sights on. This is my world today.

In late December, I heard that an application for the development of an ethanol plant was on file with the county. It tweaked my interest as the location identified was Meridian Road, the road I use to take my children to school and myself to work. The reality is that the proposed site is virtually in my neighborhood.

My neighbors quickly organized and developed a core group of 50 individuals who have been working literally night and day to find out as much as possible about the proposed site and the proposed use. After several weeks of trying to work with and through County Board members and officials, I reached the point of addressing the Board face to face at the regularly scheduled board meeting on Jan. 26. I was the only speaker on that night’s agenda, with my topic being “Land Use in Unincorporated Winnebago County.” I, together with another member of Informed Citizens Engaged (ICE), created a list of concerns that were generated among our group as a result of the recent issues surrounding the initial proposal by Wight Partners LLC.

It must be understood that we have not been sitting by complaining, nor have we been reluctant to contact and attempt to work with county officials and the developer on this matter.

It is also essential to note that we are not opposed to ethanol. Ethanol plants placed in appropriate zones and with appropriate restrictions can potentially benefit a community.

Among many other actions, I went to the Zoning and Development Office Jan. 9 in an attempt to garner as much information as possible. As is customary, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request or FOIA Request to that department seeking all communication among and between county employees, elected or appointed, and Wight Partners LLC.

I was only given information from the application and was escorted by Sue Mroz up to the chairman’s office to seek further communications. I was very particular and asked for a receipt to acknowledge the chairman’s office acceptance of my request. I was told by Sue that they wouldn’t “jerk me around” and that I would hear back from them. Nonetheless, I asked them to make a copy of my request.

I had no reason to believe that I would have difficulty receiving information as the Act afforded me this right under the law. I am just particular about following the right steps.

The standard seven business days expired, and I received a letter from the chairman’s office answering questions I didn’t ask. In fact, they referred me back to the application that they were aware that I had already received. Needless to say, I was quite dismayed by their response and promptly submitted a second and very specific request.

At the time of this writing, I have not received any further information from the chairman’s office. If, indeed, the chairman’s office hasn’t had any additional communication with Wight Partners LLC, then this only heightens my fears that the county has not done due diligence, and County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen was acting quite irresponsibly by outwardly lobbying for Wight Partners and the parcel of land in my neighborhood. He apparently referred to my neighborhood as a “Dream Site.” I was horrified to realize that the County Board chairman was flying blind, and we as a county were potentially at risk.

This leads me back to last Thursday night. I approached the podium and introduced myself as a lifelong resident of Winnebago County and a current resident of unincorporated Winnebago County. As I began to speak, I noticed that a number of Board members were conversing, reading and even turned around. I paused and politely waited for them to finish. I then turned to the chairman and asked him if I should wait. His response was that I “had three minutes.”

I started again and believed I had more of the Board’s attention. I addressed each of my concerns and looked the members in their eyes as I spoke. When I was finished, I asked for a meeting with the county. I received no answer or acknowledgment of my request. As part of my closing statement, I asked for “openness and honesty” on the part of the Board. What I received was a slap in the face.

Friday midday, I received a call that there was an attempt in progress to call an emergency meeting on Monday. Our suspicions were proven to be correct, and it most definitely had something to do with the situation on Meridian Road. I quickly called Randy Olson, who is one of my representatives on the Board, to ask him what was going on. He outright refused to tell me what was happening and told me that he was sworn to secrecy.

I quite clearly expressed my disappointment in his actions. When the announcement came out that the meeting was called to address my (our) concerns, I was horrified. This was done in secrecy and against our interests. Apparently, something changed from Thursday night that caused the Board to call a special meeting at everyone’s expense.

Tonight, about 150 members of Informed Citizens Engaged packed the courthouse to express our discontent at the proposed text amendment that would effectively eliminate legal objector standing. Our group was represented by three speakers, including two area residents and our attorney, Dennis Schumacher. Specific concerns were raised including the appearance of unethical behavior on the part of some Board members, the removal of due process rights and old-fashioned dirty politics.

Schumacher asked the Board to consider requiring Wight to place performance bonds in the amount of 10 percent of the project value, among other sensible requests. Why hadn’t our Board thought of this? This seemed to be a highly rational request.

John Goebel from Wight Partners LLC spoke about the general attributes of ethanol production and referred to the special use permit as the “best method for ZBA and Zoning (to) apply.” He attempted to entice us with promises of millions of tax dollars and 762 jobs created as a “direct” result of the 43 jobs at the facility.

Mr. Goebel, where do you get your numbers? I’ve read your sales pitch, and I’ve also read the 2002 ethanol industry consultant report from which you extracted a generous portion when creating your project proposal. I’d like to know how much research has been done in particular for this area and site and if any exists, why hasn’t it been made public?

The Farm Bureau had a representative who spoke about the attributes this type of industry would bring to Winnebago County farmers. I couldn’t disagree with him if, indeed, the figures are attainable. However, the profits can be had by area farmers if the ethanol plant were to be placed on another site within Winnebago County.

There are hundreds of acres that have rail access toward the western end of Winnebago County. In fact, the Seward area is quite rural and would most likely embrace this plant, as many of the very same farmers that would profit live nearby.

Finally, Attorney Tom Lester spoke on behalf of Wight Partners LLC. He was quick to point out inaccuracies in our statements. However, Lester wasn’t specific enough and actually misspoke about the likelihood that a super majority would still be required under the special permit. < p>In the end, cooler heads prevailed and the vote on the proposed map amendment was held over until the next Board meeting Feb. 9. When that motion passed, Randy Olson openly commented that he wanted to rescind his proposal.

We do not endorse giving up rights to push a project through. Frankly, the actions by the County Board leadership have caused us to question their intentions. It appears that the Board is a runaway train heading in your direction with Chairman Christiansen at the controls. I trust this isn’t the case and that we will get our meeting with the County Board chairman. It is not too late for us to work together as a community to find an appropriate site for Wight, the farming community and the thousands of taxpaying residents of Winnebago County.

From the Feb. 1-7, 2006, issue

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