A few months ago, U.S. District Court Judge Dudley Bowen ruled that Columbia Countys storm-water utility fee was a tax and thus not subject to federal jurisdiction, sending the case back to state court.
Afterward, one outspoken critic of the fee sent me a smarty-pants e-mail offering education in Politics 101.
This once-happy fellow hasnt uttered a peep since Friday, when Judge Carlisle Overstreet threw out the lawsuit four Columbia County men filed against the storm-water utility. Its probably just a case of faded barroom bravado, the kind that disappears when the other guy gets up off the stool and suddenly looks a lot bigger than he did behind the beer glass.
In any event, the attorney who handled the case for the four men says an appeal is likely. Attorney Jack Long is handling the suit on contingency, hoping to get a piece of the action if theres a victory in court.
As a result, Long must appeal to keep his hopes for a payday alive. And in some perverse respects, that part of me that rubbernecks at bad wrecks also wants an appeal until there is a definitive answer on the subject.
You can bet the current losing side is going to ladle on the conspiracy theories as they have in the past, claiming county officials got to Overstreet, or that he just didnt understand the complexity of the case, that the sun got in their eyes, or a dog ate their homework.
As it stands, though, Overstreets ruling is a rejection of every claim the plaintiffs made. Overstreet even rebuked them for overstating Bowens tax vs. fee contention, which Overstreet says referred to nothing more than jurisdiction in the case.
But while the pot-stirring side of me hopes for the finality that can only come through appeals, the commonsense taxpayer side says its best if it all ends here.
Just where is here? Here is back where it all started, before the lawsuit was filed in the first place. Officials held a series of meetings around the county to get public input on stormwater issues, and what they got was an earful of complaints about drainage problems.
Most opponents of a fee to pay for fixing the problems stayed away from public involvement until the fee actually started - some because they thought they wouldnt be charged anyway, and others because they just dont care.
The idea of people ignoring problems in the larger community unless it affects them directly is nothing new. But good government cant just ignore problems and hope they disappear.
Diane Ford, who has served longer than anyone else on the county commission, took office in 1992. Most of the countys drainage problems were caused long before, as previous officials welcomed growth but did little to see to it that the countys infrastructure could handle it. They passed on the problems to future generations of taxpayers and commissioners.
The buck finally stopped with commissioners Pat Farr, Jim Whitehead, Lee Brooks, Pete Brodie and Diane Ford, who did the toughest thing public officials can do: They sought a solution to a problem they didnt cause.
Frank Spears later re-placed Brodie, and Barry Fleming replaced Brooks. They have since been replaced with Steve Brown and Mark Devoti, while Tom Mercer has replaced Farr. Whiteheads seat was eliminated as the county chairmanship - held by Ron Cross - was created.
So now we have a group of commissioners who didnt cause the problem in the first place and who mostly werent around to sign on to the solution, now using that solution to fix those old problems.
And a judge agrees the solution is completely legal. That might not stop the barroom arguments, but at least it seems to have silenced a few courtroom smart-alecks.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to bpaschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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