In what would be a rare move, a company seeking to put a medical waste incinerator in Gowers Corner might ask two county commissioners to remove themselves from an upcoming hearing on its plans. New Port Richey lawyer Jerry Figurski said in a letter delivered to county officials Friday that he might ask "certain commissioners (to) disqualify themselves" from hearing an appeal of a restriction on the size of the proposed incinerator.
"The grounds for such potential disqualification relate to the ability of the commissioners to be unbiased in these particular matters," Figurski wrote. "The reasons for requesting such disqualifications range from personal relationships to political considerations."
The letter did not identify the commissioners, but Figurski acknowledged that he was alluding to Commissioner Bonnie Zimmer, whose daughter lives near the site, and Commissioner Sylvia Young, whose district includes Gowers Corner.
Figurski represents Bon-Bar Leasing, which proposes to locate the incinerator on 10 acres north of State Road 52 and west of Kent Grove Drive. The County Commission is scheduled to hear the appeal at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Pasco County Government Center in New Port Richey.
The public hearing is likely to draw a crowd of concerned neighbors, which Figurski said helps explain why his client is considering asking some commissioners to disqualify themselves.
Figurski said his client's appeal focuses on "specific legal issues." The hearing for such an appeal is akin to a court proceeding, which is governed by well-defined rules regarding evidence, testimony and what issues can properly be considered. It is not like a "legislative" hearing where elected officials may be swayed by a public outcry.
"It ought not to be a circus where 200 or 300 citizens come in and scream," he said.
In his letter, he wrote that "any bias which would militate against a fair and impartial decision must be addressed."
To Pat Mulieri, who has led opposition to the incinerator for more than two years, the idea that neighbors' concerns should not carry any weight does not make sense.
"It's become a community issue," she said. "People are really concerned about this. . . . What does Mr. Figurski expect, that this is something that's going to affect the whole community and nobody is going to write letters to their commissioners?"
Commissioner Zimmer, who had not seen the letter late Friday, was perplexed at the idea that she might be asked to disqualify herself.
"I don't know what he's saying, and I would want to see a copy of the letter and confer with our attorney before making any comment," she said.
Young could not be reached for comment.
A lawyer for the county said she will have to consider any case law that applies to such requests for disqualification before making a recommendation to commissioners.
"I've never seen this issue raised before," Chief Assistant County Attorney Karla Stetter said. "We're just researching it now."
The controversy surrounding the medical waste incinerator goes back two years.
In April 1989, the county's now-disbanded Board of Zoning Adjustment granted the company special zoning approval for the incinerator, which would burn infectious waste. That includes bandages, syringes, surgical gloves, gauze, human tissue, blood and other bodily fluids.
At the time, the company already had a permit from the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) for an incinerator that would burn 500 pounds of medical waste an hour.
The DER permit requires that the waste be burned at temperatures of at least 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit in a three-chambered incinerator. Combustion takes place in the first chamber. Smoke and gases are then burned in the second and third chambers. The ash is considered sterile and may be buried in the county's landfill.
Late last year, county officials began taking another look at the plans after learning that the company has asked the state to issue a permit to build two units, each designed to burn 2,250 pounds of waste an hour.
County officials have ruled that the Board of Zoning Adjustment's approval was based on the specific information and permits that the company provided at the public hearings in 1989. That information, officials say, concerned the smaller operation.
The company, however, has appealed the county staff's determination to the County Commission. Figurski contends that when the Board of Zoning Adjustment acted on the company's application, the motion for approval did not say anything about how much waste could be burned.
"The biggest question is what did the Board of Zoning Adjustment grant when they adopted that motion," Figurski said. He contends that the board granted his client permission to build an incinerator without applying any limits on its size.
Figurski said he notified the county about the possibility that he might ask commissioners to disqualify themselves so their staff could "review the legal issues involving a request of this nature."
He acknowledges that Florida law may not recognize the kind of disqualifications he suggests. He also concedes that his client might decide not to ask for any disqualifications at all.
Even so, he wrote, "it is a question that will probably need to be answered."