Holding a sham hearing when you've already made up your mind:
During a quasi-judicial hearing in August 2017, the eight-member commission voted unanimously to grant a Conditional Use Permit to ACP, LLC to construct the facility on land previously zoned as agricultural. But the rules governing quasi-judicial hearings, which much like a trial include sworn testimony and evidence, are strict and clearly laid out in state statute.
And in deciding on special permits, the governing board, in this case the Robeson County Commission, can’t have a “fixed opinion” on the issue before hearing all of the evidence. To do otherwise would be akin to a judge or jury issuing a verdict before a trial even began. But as court documents show, the commissioners strongly supported the ACP long before they were confronted with the decision to issue a special permit for the station and tower.
I've had to "preside" over a few of these quasi-judicial hearings myself, and you have to watch every step you take. In this particular case, what they said in the weeks or months before the hearing will (likely) not be nearly as important as the procedural process itself. If they crossed their t's and dotted their i's, and if the applicant's testimony was not obviously incorrect or deceptive, the Commissioners will probably skate on this lawsuit. And even this "ex parte" allegation may not have the teeth the complainants think it does:
“The commissioners had conversations over the years,” the Goins’ attorney, Sean Cecil, told Policy Watch, which violates another part of state statute: They allegedly didn’t disclose any “ex parte” conversations — those held outside the public hearings — with the utilities.
The commissioners’ 2016 comments “do not appear to have been the subject of public discourse,” court documents read, “leaving the curious to speculate regarding their factual basis. It can only be assumed that there must have been some contact” between ACP and the commissioners “or else the finds and conclusions were adopted out of thin air.”
We're getting into legal territory right now, and I am far from qualified to render any sort of assessment. But from my understanding, the "ex parte" clock doesn't start ticking until a formal application has been entered into the record. Elected officials very often engage in economic development initiatives, which include "recruiting" businesses to locate (or relocate) within the municipal boundaries of said county or city.
I'm not saying this process was "clean" or ethically sound, but I am saying this legal approach to rectifying it is somewhat of a long-shot. As is often the case in local politics, your best route for satisfation runs through the voting booth.