By Kathi Bliss
Caldwell County is long since a “house divided” as discussions move ahead regarding a proposed landfill project slated for property near the corner of SH130 and FM 1185. The controversial project has pitted neighbor against neighbor and voter against politician for years.
That division was no more clear than on Monday morning, when the Caldwell County Commissioners Court narrowly approved a vote to engage outside counsel to open negotiations with the project’s developer, Green Group Holdings, in an effort to hammer out details on a “host agreement,” a contractual deal that will provide certain protections and payments to Caldwell County, in return for allowing the project to move forward.
“[Our current counsel] has done a great job,” said Commissioner Hoppy Haden, who brought the idea forward to his colleagues. “But I think that for negotiating the host agreement, we need to send someone in there with fresh eyes, that hasn’t been in an adversarial position all this time.”
Haden’s comments referred to the County’s current outside counsel, Eric Magee with Austin-based Allison, Bass and Magee, who has represented the County’s interest in the Contested Case Hearing, an administrative play in front of the State Office of Administrative Hearings to block the project’s permitting process with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The hearing, which took place in August, was a two-week marathon of detailed information presented for and against the project. The decision on that hearing is still pending, and is expected to be rendered within weeks.
Already in that process, Caldwell County has spent thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees; County Judge Kenneth Schawe reported on Monday morning that he had received another bill, this time for nearly $30,000, which only covers activities through Aug. 31, 2016.
“I just don’t see the need in spending more money on lawyers, when we already have a lawyer that’s familiar with [this case],” Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Moses said. Many in the gallery agreed with Moses.
“There is no justification for this haste,” said Lou McNaughton, one of many outspoken opponents of the project. “This really doesn’t make sense to rush into discussion of the host agreement prior to a workshop and prior to the [SOAH] opinion, which is due to be rendered within days.”
McNaughton also noted that it would cost the County thousands for another attorney to get “up to speed” on the myriad technical and legal details of the case prior to entering negotiations on the agreement, which was first presented to the Court in 2013.
Commissioner Ed Theriot said the potential host agreement was one of the reasons he decided to run for office.
“I’ve never really talked about this, but I felt like my interests weren’t being represented when it came to this subject,” he said Monday. “I don’t like the idea of having a landfill, but I think that the County needs to have protections and an agreement in place [in the event the permit is granted and the project goes forward].”
Last month, the Commissioners voted to hold a workshop to discuss the agreement with the interested parties, in hopes of laying the groundwork for both monetary and enforcement demands; that workshop has not yet taken place, leading some in the gallery to wonder why the Court would move forward with contracting an outside attorney now.
“[Green Group Holdings] will always want to [negotiate an agreement],” said Roger Williams. “I would like to see the workshop planned, but I would like to see [entering the agreement] put off for as long as possible, or never done at all. It will always be to their benefit, not the County’s.”
Commissioner Joe Roland has repeatedly made his opinions on the project clear, and once again reiterated on Monday that he has no interest in working with Green Group Holdings, and will be satisfied with nothing less than seeing the project defeated altogether.
In the end, after a vote to table discussions of hiring additional counsel failed, Schawe was forced to cast a tie-breaking vote to move forward with seeking the assistance of an expert negotiator, and moving forward with scheduling a workshop to discuss possible details of the contract. Green Group representatives have historically maintained that they look forward to coming to the table to discuss an agreement with County representatives.
In other business, the Commissioners opted to lift an outdoor burning ban, in light of recent rains and changes in weather conditions. However, that decision will be evaluated on a daily basis, according to Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Ritchey.
Although no ban is currently in place, residents are reminded of ongoing dangers caused by underlying dry “fuel,” in rural areas. Further, rapidly-changing weather conditions, including high winds, can often create dangerous wildfire conditions. County residents are urged to continue taking caution when burning brush and trash, including keeping a water source nearby and never leaving outdoor fires unattended.
In brief news:
The Court entered proclamations in honor of Black History Month and Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.
They made appointments to the Caldwell County Historical Commission, the Plum Creek Watershed Partnership Steering Committee and the Luling Foundation Farm Board of Directors.
The Commissioners continued discussions of reconstituting the county development ordinance review committee.
In accordance with the Court’s rules of procedure, they unanimously voted to name Haden as County Judge Pro Tem.
The County paid bills in the amount of $386,490.11.
The Caldwell County Commissioners Court routinely meets on the second and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the second floor courtroom of the Caldwell County Courthouse. The meetings are open to the public and are available for online viewing at www.co.caldwell.tx.us.