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Guest Column: County opens itself up to landfill lawsuit
By Paul Gorski
Throughout the recent landfill expansion hearings, Winnebago County Board members were told not to speak of the issue or hear testimony outside the hearing process. The laws are in place to ensure a fair and equal debate and allow for cross-examination by petitioner and challenger alike.
Those are good laws, but why stick to the rules now? The board is not supposed to hear evidence outside the hearing process on zoning issues, either. However, a few years ago, board member Ted Biondo was allowed to discuss how he visited and inspected the land for a controversial housing development at a regular board meeting, a meeting where the public was not allowed to comment about the same topic.
Biondo’s “analysis” was not only unscientific, but outside the legal hearing process, and was improper testimony.
The board chairman violated the same testimony restriction during the wind farm ordinance process. The chairman had wind farm developers offer evidence to board members at their party caucus meetings, outside the hearing process, without allowing the public to challenge the evidence. This was a clear violation of the “no evidence outside the hearing” law, and exposed the process to a legal challenge.
Again, so why stick to the rules now? Most likely because the county did not want to endanger the landfill expansion process.
Ah, but the mistakes have been made already. Just prior to the recent hearings, the county updated its ordinance regarding such expansion applications and voted on a tentative agreement regarding fees to be received from the landfill. In doing so, board members must have discussed the potential for the landfill expansion, otherwise why discuss a new fee schedule?
Who knows what discussions — outside the formal hearing — board members had regarding the tipping fees? The proper procedure would have been: update the ordinances; process the landfill expansion process, including hearings and a vote on the expansion; and then vote on a new tipping fee schedule.
The landfill expansion can now be successfully challenged because it can be argued that the board did not follow the proper hearing evidence procedure. The board and the landfill operators should agree to halt the permit process now to avoid the potential for a costly court battle.
The process should be deferred until the next board is in place later this year, as the new board will not have been involved in the ordinance and tipping fee discussions. This may not stop the expansion, but it would allow for the fair and legal presentation and cross-examination of landfill expansion evidence.
Paul Gorski is a Cherry Valley Township resident and a former Winnebago County board member.
From the May 9-15, 2012, issue