Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, April 10, 2000

Wright County to pay $2 million settlement to sanitation co.

By John Holler

For almost two years, Wright County has been embroiled in a legal dispute with Randy Roskowiak of Delano concerning a lawsuit filed against the county and Commissioners Pat Sawatzke and Ken Jude.

The suit claimed that the county had harmed Roskowiak's sanitation and recycling business, and that Jude and Sawatzke had gone far beyond their roles as commissioners to impede private interests when the county brought in waste designation.

After two years, with both sides prepared, if needed, to have Roskowiak's request for $11.3 million in damages was averted.

At the April 4 meeting of the Wright County Board, the commissioners agreed by a 4-1 vote to a tentative settlement of the lawsuit - one that will pay Roskowiak $2.05 million and allow him to seek planning commission approval for the construction of a transfer station to handle waste outside of the county's waste handling district.

"These types of matters are difficult issues to deal with," Assistant County Attorney Brian Asleson said.

"I wouldn't characterize this as anything other than a tentative agreement, because the federal district court is retaining jurisdiction over the next step in the process, which we be (Roskowiak) getting a hearing with the planning commission.

It isn't exactly a done deal, but it was a settlement both sides were willing to enter to limit the time, money and effort that has been expended."

The agreement wasn't an easy one to achieve.

When it was presented to the board, Commissioner Jack Russek reluctantly made a motion to accept it, saying, "I don't really like this, but I will vote on it because it's the lesser of two evils."

The board then waited for a second. And waited. And waited.

It never came.

As named defendants, neither Jude nor Sawatzke were inclined to second the motion and, unless he surrendered the chair's gavel, Commissioner Dick Mattson can't make a motion or second.

When Commissioner Elmer Eichelberg did not second the motion, it died.

Asleson asked that the matter be laid over until the end of the board meeting, a request that passed by a 4-1 vote - Sawatzke voted to have the issue end at that point.

Later in the meeting, the matter came back to a vote and, after Russek made another motion and Eichelberg seconded, the issue passed 4-1. Again, Sawatzke voted against the settlement and later gave his reasons why.

"I didn't agree with it," Sawatzke said.

"I would have preferred to go to court. It's a difficult situation, because you never know what a jury will do. I thought after the finding of facts, that we had a strong case and could have won at trial."

However, that was a big question mark that left the county open to considerable liability.

The settlement amount was $50,000 over the county's maximum insurance coverage for such cases, which means that all but $50,000 won't come out of county funds.

However, with a court judgment that could have reached more than $11 million, anything over $2 million would have to come from county reserves and ultimately county taxpayers.

"Any liability above and beyond the coverage would have to have been made up from tax levy dollars and reserves," Asleson said.

"That was a consideration in the settlement."

For his part, Roskowiak said that the county's decisions years ago on waste designation did considerably more than $2 million in damage to his company and said that he accepted the settlement because his intention wasn't to make the taxpayers of Wright County pay for what he felt was a problem created by the county.

"We never wanted to the taxpayers of the county involved at all," Roskowiak said. "The $2 million was the county's insurance limit and that's what we accepted. As for the other $50,000, my wife and I are going to donate that to a charity in Wright County."

This wasn't to say that Roskowiak wasn't confident that he could win in court. His suit made national news as one of the first to find that waste designation like Wright County's was unconstitutional and, after having the facts heard by a judge and sent forward for trial, he was convinced he could have won the full amount if it had gone that far.

"I never had a problem with going the distance with this case," Roskowiak said.

"After a Judge had looked at it and saw it had merit, that was when the county finally came to the table with an offer. But, in the end, it wasn't going to do any of us any good to keep spending money on this," he said.

Roskowiak said the county had made a couple of settlement offers of $50,000 and $125,000, but both figures were far below what he had already expended in legal fees.

His $2.05 million settlement offer also has a contingency that he can request the Wright County Planning Commission to hear his request for a rezoning to build a waste transfer station, and the district court has retained jurisdiction over the settlement and set a six-month timetable on getting the matter resolved, which, if it shown the county doesn't give Roskowiak what he deems a fair hearing, could have the matter back in court.

For this reason, Jude, one of the co-defendants accused of going beyond his authority as a commissioner refused to elaborate on his feelings on the settlement.

"We sent out a press release that covers most of the points," Jude said. "I could speak on the matter, but I want to do everything I can so that I don't do or say anything that can be perceived as disrupting the process with the planning commission, so I simply can't comment."

Roskowiak has already sent paperwork to the planning and zoning office with preliminary sketches to have his request for rezoning heard and, while he is hopeful this will bring an end to the matter, he still believes the county could have avoided not only the expensive litigation with his company, but the expense of fighting Superior Services Inc. over the FCR Landfill.

"I'm glad to see that this might finally be done after all this time," Roskowiak said.

"But, people should know that (the county) could have ended all of this without spending a penny. But that wasn't the policy the county had. Now, a lot of taxpayer money and county time has been spent to try to fix that policy and it wasn't necessary."

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