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A timing question

One of the key questions in a brief Turtle River Township, N.D., filed at Grand Forks District Court this week is how long it takes a group to make a reasonable decision on a complex issue.

One of the key questions in a brief Turtle River Township, N.D., filed at Grand Forks District Court this week is how long it takes a group to make a reasonable decision on a complex issue.

Must it take lengthy discussion or might it take about 30 minutes, the length of time it apparently took for township supervisors to deny the city of Grand Forks the right to build a landfill there?

The city is now engaged in a legal struggle to overturn the supervisors' decision. It had filed a brief against the township last month, which the township is now answering with its own brief.

The city will now have 14 days to rebut, after which the judge will set a trial date. If the city succeeds, it could build a new landfill by 2012. But regardless of success, the current landfill must close by the end of 2008.

The question of reasonableness is important because the township's attorney, Al Boucher, has chosen to make his stand on pretty much that point alone.


The city's attorney, Ron Fischer, had argued that the city is immune from township zoning laws - the ones that blocked it from building the landfill - because it represents a broader set of public interests than the township. By blocking the landfill, the tiny township had blocked the garbage disposal needs of the entire northern Red River Valley.

Boucher said that Fischer had misread City of Fargo v. Harwood Township, the case that the latter had cited to bolster the balance-of-public-interest argument. There is only a balance for the court to decide if a case involved two government entities of equal power.

The city had argued that the township's laws are much tougher than the county's and therefore unreasonable. Boucher argued that, since the Harwood case, the North Dakota Legislature has given townships the right to be tougher in landfill zoning.

At any rate, Boucher said, the city had submitted to Turtle River's zoning process, which means it recognizes the legitimacy of that process. It cannot now claim it is immune; it may only claim that the process was not reasonable.

Which brings us back to the question of what is "reasonable."

Fischer had mentioned in his briefing that there is no doubt that the township supervisors had not "engaged in a rational thoughtful process of deliberation or consideration of evidence." One way this is evident is the length of time it took for supervisors to come to a decision.

"Despite having heard four days of testimony, and receiving voluminous exhibits, it took the township board less than one-half hour to unanimously vote to deny the city's petition," Fischer wrote.

That 30 minutes of deliberation had ended the city's decade-long quest for a replacement landfill.


But, Boucher asked, how anyone could read the supervisors' minds. During the four days of testimony and the months that separated some of those testimonies, he wrote, they had plenty of time to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion.

"When a group makes decisions, the individual member's decision making is applied collectively after each individual has reflected on the evidence privately," he wrote. "Sometimes, there is no need to discuss the decision in detail because it is apparent relatively quickly that there is a meeting of minds."

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