- I think the first thing the people of Homer have to deal with about the water for the coal mine issue is that their Village Board treated all the people assembled at the January 14th meeting in a really rude and inhospitable way. The usual board room in the Village Hall has eighteen rows of seats of various lengths, but for this meeting they set up in the foyer with only six rows of five seats and five rows of four seats, with four more seats on the side at the front, forcing many people to stand uncomfortably on the sides and in the back. No participants were mic-ed, and much of what was said could not be heard. This amounts to embarrassing and unnecessarry hostility completely out of keeping with our small town values. The meeting began with the pledge to a flag people couldn’t even see—kind of symbolic of the whole mess that has unraveled with the Homer Village Board. At the January 14th meeting there were more people with their hand in the air to talk in the public comment part of the meeting, who were not recognized. That was really rude, and may break the Board’s own rules. I’m sure you’ve heard, the crowd was threatened to be cleared. Trustee Mike Johnson wanted the meeting moved to “executive session” kicking everyone out. The Village Attorney told him they couldn’t do that, preserving a shred of public spirit.
At some of these meetings—November 26th, January 14th, Sunrise has been at a special table or at THE table with the Board. Is this the proper way to do the public’s business? The Board doesn’t follow parliamentary procedure, and just has a conversation, but the rule of the conversation is that they (usually the Mayor orchestrating) talk to who they want and the public is not welcome to improve the thinking or provide any information at these times.
People ought to be pretty ashamed of the shabby way the public got treated on January 14th and ought to have real concerns about the Mayor telling one citizen to shut up at several of the meetings. All other questions aside, this makes me want to clean house in the next election.
- The Mayor and the Board have sold the idea that they can make a rational decision about water for the coal mine AND not pay a thing for doing so. They have had Sunrise foot the bill for all the engineering and legal staff work. I would kindly suggest, if Homer can’t afford to do its own staff work—independent, not beholden to the mine—then it can’t afford to host a mine. There are going to be a lot of expenses with this over the years.
- Mayor Lucas is probably a nice man, a man who may know and care more about Homer than anyone who has ever lived, but he wants this mine so bad it seems to leak out of his pores. The Mayor knows a HUGE amount about this decision and can probably recite in his sleep about water capacity, flow pressure, water rate comparisons, and where to put the meter—but there are dozens, maybe hundreds of other questions that do not seem to interest him at all. The Mayor and Board get an “A” in industrial arts, but they get an “F” in risk assessment and long-term planning. If you go to these meetings, as I have, you wonder why Homer would care about selling the mine treated water at all. By some estimates of mine water use, and these are starting to move up, at current water rates, Homer stands to make about $13.00 a day selling water—about the same on sewer. Even in a small town, this is basically “nothing” added to the village budget. The Mayor himself posed this question at the December 10th regular meeting. The answer is that the Village is proud of not raising water rates since 2000, but this is getting hard to continue so they need more water customers, and the Board worries about finding $70,000 to paint the new water tower. But the real answer is that Lucas and Trustee Ray Cunningham really do believe in the economic “development” of Homer—and Sunrise is it. I haven’t heard them say in so many words, but they seem to smell a new subdivision in this coal mine, more businesses, and more taxpayers. It seems pretty clear, a lot of people in Homer like the place about the way it is, and have reservations about this supposed “something for nothing” growth.
So, the Mayor manages every conversation before the Board, giving mine favorable answers to almost every question and objection.This goes back to the parliamentary procedure business mentioned above.In parliamentary procedure the presiding officer isn’t allowed to speak, but in Homer, the Mayor prompts a steady flow of pro-coal mine talk, summarizes and re-contextualizes issues in pro-mine ways, and answers questions for the mine.
Mayor Lucas looks like a classic Spielberg villain: not Darth Vader, but the mayor in JAWS who kept the beach open and the shark ate their children.It is not a vile, cruel villainy but a kind of dim viewed, short-sighted, commercial carelessness.
Here are a few of Mayor Lucas’ stabs at controlling the opposition.He attacks the Prairie Rivers organization because they made a Freedom of Information Act request for staff work on the mine, when Prairie Rivers looks like good public servants supporting transparency in doing this.Lucas claims that those who oppose the mine are a “special interest,” when it is pretty clear, the water sale critics are thinking in the broadest possible ways about the question of what is good for East Central Illinois, and they are least likely to profit monetarily from the decision.He claims making moral decisions about businesses is not the Board’s job, but obviously it is. He compares the mine to any other business when it is plainly not like ANY other business in the entire Champaign County.He claims opponents really oppose coal, when in fact almost everyone cares mostly about water and way of life.He was quoted on AM580 on Tuesday January 15th saying opponents turn to government to get what they want—which is pretty comical since it is a private business that has come to government to get a sweet deal.Lucas has been known to mutter, “What about those who sold mineral rights to the mine?They will lose out.”In fact, those people are the ones who are trying to “socialize the risk” of the mine, hoping the other people in the area will directly and indirectly subsidize their investment by taking environmental and other costs for them.
- Both Homer and Sunrise coal look like unreliable partners. The Sodemann Associates civil engineering firm, the regular Village Attorney (Paul Hendren), and the special municipal utility attorney (James Rhodes of the Chicago firm of Klein, Thorp & Jenkins) ran through the coal company’s $50,000 with blazing speed. If you haven’t been there, much of the meetings is dedicated to the attorneys worrying about being paid their $250 per hour to read the newest version of the contract. If I were the President of Sunrise, I would have nothing but contempt for these people. For their part, Sunrise, of course, has submitted different water use numbers to the State and the Village. The mine people and the Village Trustees do not seem to really trust each other, flipping positions on ownership and liability, and setting up for a battle on water rates and the “assignability” of the contract.
- Is Homer really ready to play at this level with mineral extraction companies? The Mayor, Trustees, and Village Attorney never seem to know what the Village statutes say and nobody seems to have a copy to look it up. The Board members seem to forget where they left off last time. That $250 per hour Chicago attorney? He was on SPEAKER PHONE at the January 14th meeting and at times couldn’t hear what was being said in Homer and at times could not be heard in Homer. Probably his most frequent legal advice at the meeting was that he couldn’t give any under these conditions of lousy communication.
But if you really want to pause on Homer and the coal mine, stay to the very end of the meeting, when they get off water and on to other Village business.At the December 10th meeting the Village water & sewer guy couldn’t report on monthly sewer plant use because the gauges were broken and they had not yet been able to get them fixed.In other business, a couple who started a main street business petitioned to receive the reimbursement they were owed for a sewer hook-up, but left in tears, denied, because, while the village had the money to pay them what had been OWED THEM SINCE LAST JUNE, the Village did not have enough money left in the specified budget line.They will be paid in May 2013.I do not want to cast Homer as a bunch of Barney Fife’s, because it is not, but if you think they are big players who are ready to contend with other big players, you’d have to prove it to me.I’ve got “9” numbered points here, but if I were a Homer Trustee I’d search my heart on this one.Are you REALLY up for this?Are those who follow you as Trustees going to be up for this?
- Mayor Lucas reassured in a special column in the Commentary section of the Sunday January 13th News-Gazette that the Village Board members would never put Homer in a position where they faced expensive litigation, and the decision to sell treated water to Sunrise does not present those risks. However, Chad Beckett, the counsel for Prairie Rivers, indicated at the November 26th meeting that the decision is not legally clean. Cities and Villages may sell water to customers out of their jurisdiction, using the powers of eminent domain to build the line—but only after the mine is approved. However, the mine will not be approved until it can show it has the water supply! The $250 an hour guy from Chicago dismissed this at the time as “chicken and egg.” You have to wonder if a court would be interested in this poultry. Will every possible land owner along the path of the water and sewer pipelines be eligible to hook up? For irrigation? Doesn’t that sound like lawsuits to you? And that is before anyone is “harmed” in this deal.
- Much of the January 14th meeting was spent arguing about the “assignment” provision of the contract—can Sunrise sell the mine, “assigning” the Homer water contract to the buyer? Sunrise gave four unilateral provisions for sale and assignment, and the Village Board members were most concerned about selling to a non-mining user—to a waste dump. That is all well and good, but the least controversial possible assignment for the Trustees seemed to be the sale to another coal company. THAT IS THE ONE THAT SHOULD HAVE HAD THE MOST RED FLAGS. Some of these coal companies have horrible safety and environmental records and some have outrageous reputations for their disregard of their host communities! Don’t be naïve. This is a thirty-five year mine that may be a five hundred year set of problems, and who you deal with concerning these problems matters.
- What about Sodemann Associates in the person of Andy Keiser? Mr. Keiser does not stick with giving the civil engineering advice he is paid to offer, he spends his Board report time acting as the local political theorist, advising the Village Trustees they have no right worrying about what kind of business they are supporting. To say this raises uncomfortable questions is to put it as nicely as I know how.
- Finally, a relatively small amount of treated water is one thing. But when it comes to the projected half a million gallons a day for coal washing—that is not Homer’s to sell. That is not Homer’s water. If anyone in Homer thinks it is, then they better get ready for a level of protest and litigation that will make the last few months’ controversy look like the good old days of peace and harmony. I do not say this as a “threat,” but as a realistic assessment of what is going to be a huge struggle over that coal mine. The whole matter can be put to rest on Monday, January 28th.