Thursday, December 31st, 2009 at 9:00am

Commissioners Ignored Niagara Warnings

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Commissioners Ignored Niagara Warnings
December 31, 2009

    Groveland finally decided to drop its lawsuit against Niagara Bottling, claiming a legal precedent was not on their side.  Now, the local politicians want to be good neighbors.  Niagara has pegged their legal fees at $4 million, for which they seek local government reparation, while current estimates for Lake County and Groveland are around $1.5 million.

For a year and a half, our group, Citizens for Better Government, L.L.C., has warned that the case against Niagara was a loser, and would lead to high legal costs that Lake County taxpayers will ultimately have to pay.  We pointed out that Niagara was a legitimate company that was recruited by Lake County and promised business incentives, and had made substantial business investments with the promise of creating 50-100 badly needed jobs.  We also noted Marion County lost a similar case, the amount of water in question was minimal compared to other users, and pursuing this case could lead to governmental abuse of power, which could ultimately lead to piercing governmental immunity.

Despite our warnings, Commissioner Elaine Renick led the charge to fight Niagara, getting willing accomplices from other Lake County Commissioners and the City of Groveland.  The bills kept piling up, and now there is an estimated $5.5 million in wasted legal fees.

Our group has obtained transcripts from closed sessions held by the Lake County Board of County Commissioners from July 2008 through February 2009 (click on the links at the bottom of this newsletter to view the closed session transcripts), which indicate Commissioners willingly ignored the same warnings from their legal counsel. In July of 2008, Commissioners were told by legal counsel they would have a hard time winning the case and were warned about high legal fees.  In September of last year, their counsel expressed concern about a legal decision lost by Marion County in a similar case.  Yet, his warnings were not heeded.

In November of 2008, Commissioners were once again told the case was a loser with County Attorney, Sandy Minkoff, saying the following, “If the issue is the next Niagara, which I personally think that’s really the issue that the board is concerned about, let’s face it, Niagara is really not using a lot of water, even though we’ve tried to portray that.”  In January of this year, Lake County’s two attorneys told the Commission the case was going badly, and Minkoff said, “I don’t think we’re going to end up with a favorable decision using the courts.”

What you just read is governmental abuse of power of the worst kind.  From the transcripts we have reviewed, Niagara will probably win their case against Lake County and the City of Groveland for legal and expense reparation.  It is our opinion a case piercing government immunity against local officials personally could be made for abuse of power.  The apparent strategy of Lake County was to intimidate and spend Niagara out of the legal battles; unfortunately, they faced a company who was not willing to relinquish its constitutional right of due process.

The same local officials who are responsible for this catastrophe now seek to be a good neighbor with Niagara.  We suspect is it going to take a $4 million house warming gift from Lake County taxpayers together with the original incentive package for Niagara to become neighborly.

Commissioner Elaine Renick and her environmental cronies on the LPA led this charge against Niagara and they should be held accountable.  Citizens for Better Government, L.L.C. warned them from the beginning they had no legal standing, and now the evidence is crystal clear – their own lawyers did the same.  This evidence should be enough to pierce the legal government immunity of Commissioner Renick and others, and our group urges Niagara Bottling to seek punitive damages against those government officials who abused their power.  If Lake County is going to be on the hook for $2-$5 million, so should the people who created this mess.

Here is the bottom line – Lake County will probably have to lay off between 50-150 of its employees to cover these losses; more importantly, the County’s reputation as a business friendly environment has been destroyed.  The first people who should lose their jobs are the politicians who created this mess.  Those who abused their power and voted to fight Niagara despite being warned should resign immediately.

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