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County board creates chief pilot position, wind farm ordinance laid over after last-minute changes

October 14, 2009

A proposed wind farm ordinance was on the Winnebago County Board agenda for discussion during the board's Oct. 8 meeting. But because of changes crafted the same day, which most board members were seeing for the first time, some were uneasy about putting the ordinance to a vote. Construction workers voiced in favor of wind farm construction, citing 35 percent unemployment in the local building-trade job market.

A proposed wind farm ordinance was on the Winnebago County Board agenda for discussion during the board's Oct. 8 meeting. But because of changes crafted the same day, which most board members were seeing for the first time, some were uneasy about putting the ordinance to a vote. Construction workers voiced in favor of wind farm construction, citing 35 percent unemployment in the local building-trade job market.

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

During the Oct. 8 Winnebago County Board meeting, board members debated whether to authorize a service agreement with the Law Enforcement Aviation Coalition (LEAC) to direct $45,000 in federal grant funds for the hiring of a full-time chief pilot.

Until now, LEAC pilots have worked on a volunteer basis, but Sheriff Dick Meyers (D) said the demand has grown throughout the region for air support, necessitating a full-time position.

The coalition, serving northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, was formed in 2003, and has depended on county support for three years, explained County Administrator Steve Chapman.

Of the $90,000 support offered by the county this year, half will be used to pay a chief pilot’s salary.

County board member Randy Olson (R-1) has been serving as the unpaid chief pilot and is being considered for the compensated position.

Should Olson be offered the job, however, it may come at the expense of his bounty board seat.

“It is my understanding that you cannot work for the county and be on the county Board,” Meyers indicated.

But because grant dollars, administrated through the county, are funding the LEAC position, it is unclear whether the chief pilot will be considered a county employee.

“Because the program serves such a wide area and is so highly specialized, the best oversight and day-to-day supervision would be through the command structure that is currently in place for LEAC,” Meyers stated. “The position is scheduled to be placed in a grant account for the county, and is managed out of the county administrator’s office. Continued support for the grant, to include employment of personnel within the contract, would certainly be subject to termination by the county.”

Meyers noted issues regarding funding, pay, who would supervise the position, and whether the chief pilot will be considered a county employee are being worked out in a memorandum of understanding with LEAC. 

Prior to a vote, Democrats called a caucus to discuss the issue.

George Anne Duckett (D-12) was originally opposed when LEAC first asked for a $100,000 donation three years ago, but has since acknowledged the value of the service. She argued, however, other municipalities benefiting from the service should also pony up.

In response, Meyers noted other agencies support LEAC by providing other things, such as ground crew personnel.

Duckett also questioned the process by which the pilot would be hired.

“From what I understand, they already know who’s gonna fly the helicopter,” said Duckett, referencing Olson’s present unpaid post as LEAC’s chief pilot. “We need some ethical training around here about what’s going on.”

Despite Duckett’s ethical concerns, Doug Aurand (D-3) asserted, “I’m gonna support my sheriff.”

Olson, who has run for sheriff before, is widely considered to be the best chance Republicans have at defeating incumbent Meyers, causing some to suggest the paid chief pilot position may serve as incentive for Olson not to run in the next election.

Because the decision is in the hands of the LEAC board, Meyers said he did not know who would be offered the job.

Olson declined to comment at time of publication, noting he’d been out of town and had not reviewed the information yet.

Because the decision is not in his hands, Meyers said he did not know who would be offered the job.

“Who is selected will go through county Human Resources, not the Sheriff’s Department,” he noted. “I assume they will work directly with the LEAC board and its chairman. Mr. Olson has a reputation of being a quality pilot and was instrumental in forming LEAC, so I believe he would certainly be in contention for the job. I’m not familiar with other pilots associated with LEAC.”

Once the county board was back in session, Duckett made a motion for a layover, adding, “We have to be very careful about how we’re going to create departments, or services, or employment.”

Duckett’s motion was soundly defeated by “no” votes from Aurand, Isidro Barrios (D-11), Ted Biondo (R-9), John Ekberg (R-10), Dave Fiduccia (R-4), Frank Gambino (R-14), Paul Gorski (D-5), Bob Hastings (D-13), Bob Kinnison (R-10), Kyle Logan (R-3), Kay Mullins (R-8), Wendy Owano (R-5), Dianne Parvin (R-4), Rick Pollack (R-13), Steve Schultz (R-2), John F. Sweeney (R-14), Fred Wescott (R-9) and Dave Yeske (R-2).

Once the original motion was back on the floor, Gambino acknowledged, “I think it should be publicly known that Mr. Olson…is in consideration for this.”

Hastings and Logan noted the board’s decision should be based on whether the position will benefit the county, not who will be hired. Nevertheless, Duckett was unrelenting.

“Ethically, I question it,” she said. “Randy Olson’s got the job. He’s the chief pilot, and the people on the [LEAC] board are going to select him.

“This isn’t right,” Duckett added. “I love Randy. He’s a wonderful, kind man, but that’s not the way the county’s gonna be doing business around here. We have to remember there’s some ethics that we’ve got to continue to remember. This is one of these things that I’m having a problem with. I don’t know of any minority that’s on that board. I don’t even know if they have a minority pilot.”

Aurand countered: “I think that the [LEAC] board will pick the most qualified, and if that happens to be Mr. Olson, he should get the job. Those people that serve on that board are good people, and they’re going to look at what’s best for their organization, and they’re going to pick the most qualified person to take that job.”

In a 21-5 vote, the resolution was approved. Duckett, Angie Goral (D-7), Gorski, Dorothy Redd (D-6) and L.C. Wilson (D-12) voted “no.”

In other news, a proposed wind farm ordinance was on the floor for discussion during the board’s Oct. 8 meeting. But because of changes crafted the same day, which most board members were seeing for the first time, some were uneasy about putting the ordinance to a vote.

Zoning Officer Troy Krup assured the board the intentions of the Zoning Board of Appeals and Zoning Committee had been maintained through the changes, but others weren’t so sure.

Zoning Committee Vice Chairman Gorski noted: “This is the first time we’ve seen these changes, ’cause what we brought in, what was voted unanimously out of the Zoning Committee, is slightly different. Going through it, I see some things I have some concerns about, some things that were put back after some other suggested changes were posed earlier this week. I have a problem voting on significant amendment changes like this on the floor. In addition, there are some other concerns that I’ve had that I believe open up the county to litigation that I’d also like considered.”

Gorski acknowledged most of the changes appeared positive, but told The Rock River Times, “The lack of thorough environmental reports and the omission of mitigation plans for some of these concerns could be the basis of a lawsuit.”

During a Democratic caucus, Gorski explained: “State law requires that any time there’s a change to our zoning ordinances that a natural resource information report be done. That wasn’t done with this text amendment. Somebody could come in after the fact and challenge our whole process on it, unless something changes in the next few weeks.

“I don’t want a lawsuit to shut down the wind farm,” he added. “The people out in Seward aren’t going to give up, so we’ve got to bulletproof this ordinance if we want it to pass.”

Seward Township filed as a legal objector, which means the ordinance will require a supermajority—at least 21 of 28 votes—for approval. Seward’s main objection is that the ordinance would make commercial wind power-generating facilities a permitted use, instead of a special use, which would require public hearings on a case-by-case basis as new potential turbine sites are proposed.

During the caucus, Democrats agreed they’re all in favor of the proposed Navitas Energy wind farm, but were divided on whether the vote should be delayed until the Oct. 22 meeting.

Meantime, in the board room gallery, approximately 50 union workers in favor of the ordinance outnumbered about a dozen environmentalists calling for a more solid plan.

“I just hope we don’t blow this deal,” Aurand said. “No matter what we do, that group is going to do everything they can to not have it happen. …We can’t afford to lose these jobs.”

A motion to delay a vote for two weeks was ultimately approved. Aurand, Hastings, Owano, Owens, Paris, Pollack, Sweeney, David Tassoni (D-7) and Wescott voted against the layover.

Navitas is responsible for development of 19 wind farms in 10 states, six of which were later sold to Babcock & Brown, Ltd., which began liquidating its assets in August.

Of the seven existing wind farms developed in Illinois by Navitas, two were sold to Babcock & Brown.

Pattern Energy Group acquired Babcock & Brown’s North American energy division in June.

From the October 14-20, 2009 issue

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