The Bradford County Telegraph has published an article about the Monday, May 2 meeting of the Bradford County Commissioners which extensively quotes policy director Merrillee Malwitz Jipson from OSFR.
They knew! Commissioners cornered about mining app
Thursday, May 5, 2016
BY MARK J. CRAWFORD Telegraph Editor
STARKE — Mining opponents quizzed county commissioners during Monday morning’s meeting about what they knew of HPS II Enterprises permit application and when, about the cancelation of a workshop to further discuss mining and about how they intend to proceed with considering the application.
HPS is proposing to mine phosphate in Bradford and Union counties but has faced vocal opposition from those who fear the environmental impact. Those opponents include residents here as well as Santa Fe River activists from outside the county, and now Alachua County has indicated it wants to weigh in as well. Union County has imposed a moratorium on mining applications. Bradford County has twice rejected a moratorium, both before and after receiving an application from HPS.
Stasia Rudolph from Melrose pressed the commission about the sequence of events following the April 21 meeting when opponents left believing there would be a subsequent workshop on the topic before any permit applications would be accepted. It was later revealed during the same meeting that HPS had submitted its application earlier that day, and the workshop was canceled the following week. “I guess as a citizen, I’m trying to figure out what happened and what are the next steps for the board of county commissioners as far as the approval process,” she said. There was uncertainty about the course of the approval process, including how many hearings will take place.
Frieda Kassetas’ questions about the process, however, concerned when commissioners are typically informed that a permit application has been submitted. But she didn’t stop with questioning the board’s attorney, Will Sexton, on the process, turning to the board to ask which commissioners knew an application had been turned in prior to nearly two hours of pro-moratorium public comments at the April 21 meeting.
While Commissioner Kenny Thompson maintained he knew nothing, the other four commissioners, Eddie Lewis, Lila Sellars, Ross Chandler and Danny Riddick — who called HPS “shady” for submitting an application prior to the board’s second consideration of the moratorium — all admitted they were informed of the application prior to the meeting.
Chandler, who changed his vote to support a moratorium and tried to get the board to prohibit new applications pending the subsequently canceled workshop, said he was informed there was already an application shortly before that April meeting.
As for the workshop cancellation, Sexton maintains that, with a mining application in hand, such discussions constitute ex parte communications that would have to be disclosed during the actual hearing on the application and could be considered prejudicial. “Once a board receives an application that’s pending, it cannot engage in conversation and discussion — or should not engage in conversation and discussion — with folks on either side of the issue outside of the public hearings that are held to consider that application,” Sexton said.
Because the process for hearing both sides and making a decision is quasi-judicial, then commissioners are acting as judges. This conflicts with the principle that the public should be able to converse with their elected representatives, but Lewis said if the board prejudices itself, commissioners could be replaced with an administrative law judge to conduct the hearing.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, the policy director for Our Santa Fe River, strongly questioned the county’s position on quasi-judicial proceedings and ex parte communications, which is typically defined as conversation between one party and a judge to which the other side is not privy. “My understanding is you can have public meetings just like this one where we can discuss this in public. It’s in private where there’s problems,” she said. “With all due respect, public notice means public notice. Whether or not one or the other side comes or doesn’t come, it’s all being recorded many different ways in this room.”
Jipson said the lack of notice of the board’s emergency meeting in March prevented mining opponents from attending, but the commission proceeded anyway. By the time the public could show up to comment on a proposed moratorium, HPS had already made its application. “You need to hear from your citizens since you, ultimately, are going to be responsible for this vote,” said Jipson.
And Kassetas pointed out that the most of the commission knew there was an application already pending when it heard public comments, discussed the matter and voted on the proposed moratorium April 21 — without concern for the quasi-judicial process. “There was an application for a permit put in prior to the public having an opportunity to know that, and we all stood here and gave our comments without knowing that application was put in, yet the commissioners and yourself (Sexton) were fully aware that that application was in,” she said. “It seems like a double standard.”
Rudolph also questioned the voting procedure during the April 21 meeting and the requirement that four out of five commissioners vote in favor of reversing a prior action — in this case the March 31 emergency meeting during which the majority voted not to proceed with placing a moratorium on mining permit applications. Sexton said the requirement was stipulated in the board’s own policies and procedures, most recently adopted in 2006.
Also concerned about the impact of the proposed mine on protected land and waterways, Alachua County was scheduled to have a special meeting on Tuesday afternoon to which county commissioners from Bradford were invited to participate. In spite of encouragement from the public, Bradford commissioners indicated they would not attend, assigning Sexton to attend instead.
The Gainesville Sun reported April 27 that Alachua Commission Chairman Robert Hutchison wrote to both Bradford and Union counties that Alachua does not want to interfere with their home-rule authority but is adamant that permitting and development in either county not impact Alachua’s environmental resources.