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Confusion slows Cortland legal challenges

CORTLAND – Legal issues surrounding a potential courtroom showdown between Cortland Township and Waste Management are becoming as cluttered as the landfill some residents hope to prevent from expanding.

After a sometimes contentious and often confusing meeting of Cortland Township electors Jan. 31 to vote on whether the township should sue to stop a Waste Management landfill expansion, trustees remain unclear on how to proceed, Township Trustee John Wartenbe said.

“Trustees expressed a concern about the procedures of that [Jan. 31] meeting because it’s all very confusing,” he said. “We sympathize with them, but we don’t know if they have all their facts straight.”

Wartenbe said the township is looking into legal consultation to help advise the board on how it can move forward legally with the electors’ request to open a special fund for residents to contribute money toward a lawsuit to stop the expansion.

Electors voted to open the fund and raise money for a legal challenge during the special Jan. 31 meeting, which was not a regularly scheduled meeting and had no official board gathering. Wartenbe said trustees want to be sure the procedures in that meeting were legal as well as any future action that could come from it before entertaining legal action against Waste Management.

He said the board wants to protect the township from any lawsuit that could come from Waste Management or individuals about improper procedures should the township decide to sue.

Township Supervisor Melody Birdsell declined to

The DeKalb County Board approved a landfill expansion in 2010 that would allow Waste Management to receive garbage from 17 counties. The additional revenue would provide the $27 million needed to expand the DeKalb County Jail.

The county board’s approval came despite an official stance against the expansion from Cortland Township.

Jerry Crabtree, associate director for Township Officials of Illinois, said Cortland Township officials have been in contact with him about the issue and he believes sound procedures have been followed.

He said it only requires a gathering of 15 electors to request a meeting and action from the township board, and there is nothing illegal about a group of residents raising money to give to a township board with direction on how to spend the donation.

“These townships do not have the resources, so if that’s what [residents] want to do to protect their community, they can,” Crabtree said of the fundraising efforts on behalf of the township board.

And if the township decides to sue, Crabtree said he believes it would have strong legal grounds to do so – an opinion shared by lawyer Jeff Jeep, who could be appointed to represent Cortland Township.

Jeep said the key to any lawsuit is the timing of a wording change the legislature made in a statute that gives township authority over garbage disposal within its boundaries. In 1994, the Illinois Legislature changed a statute to say township authority over garbage disposal in its boundaries does apply to state-regulated facilities. Before 1994, the statute said that authority did not apply to those facilities.

Why the wording change was made and what legal effects it has are questions a judge has never answered, Jeep said.

“It’s a very straightforward issue,” Jeep said. “But it’s never been challenged.”

Bill Plunkett, spokesman for Waste Management, said the company is confident in the DeKalb County Board’s decision. He said the township code does not regulate the landfill siting process.

“It is very clear that local review and approval of a landfill expansion is determined by the Illinois Environmental Protection Act,” he said. “We are confident that Waste Management and DeKalb County conducted the proper and legally prescribed course in the expansion of the DeKalb County landfill.” 

Cortland Township’s next meeting is scheduled for March 11, where Wartenbe said trustees would likely further discuss the issue. He said the annual meeting of electors on April 16 would give the township a clear path forward, but any final decision to sue would require outside money.

Legal costs are estimated at $60,000.

“I would support the challenge because the lawyers, Jeep and Blazer, laid out some very interesting points,” Wartenbe said. “But with the township board’s current fiscal situation, there is no way we could come up with that kind of money.”

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