A discussed in prior posts, the Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC) has taken an aggressive respond to deadlines imposed by the Ohio Legislature compelling ERAC to render decisions in 339 appeals in a matter of months. It issued orders in all pending appeals canceling prior hearings and establishing an expedited hearing format that consists of the following:
- one hour hearings- split between the sides equally
- no presentation of witnesses
- five page briefs
- no meaningful discovery (depositions, document production, etc.)
My prior posts resulted in an interview with Gongwer regarding the ERAC deadlines and corresponding orders for expedited hearings. In the article, Gongwer quoted ERAC Chairwoman Lisa Eschleman who said:
Limits on hearings were necessary to comply with new deadlines for ERAC to issue rulings, which were included in the biennial budget bill (HB 1).
Under the new deadlines, the commission must issue final decisions in 339 appeals by Dec. 15, she said, noting hearings were scheduled through Dec. 1.
"We took 339, divided it by the number of days, minus the number of holidays. It means we had to do six de novo hearings a day," she said. "Physically we had to put a limit on the amount of the time the people can have."
Previously, average de novo hearings at ERAC lasted about five days, she said.
The deadlines imposed in the Budget Bill were not opposed by the business community, only environmental groups sought a veto from Governor Strickland. However, now that ERAC has responded to the deadlines with its expedited hearings, businesses are scrambling to address the issue.
A lawsuit was filed in the 10th Appellate Court on behalf of over a dozen companies with forty appeals pending before ERAC. The lawsuit (called a Writ of Mandamus) seeks the Appellate Court to issue an order to compel ERAC to comply with due process requirements. The suit states:
A writ is necessary because the Commission has embarked upon a process of scheduling hearings de novo in over three hundred pending appeals that limit appellants, including the Relators, to not more than one-half hour to present evidence in support of their appeals, as more fully described below. Such a patent deprivation of Relators’ right to a hearing de novo that adheres to the most basic requirements of due process can only be adequately addressed through issuance of the requested writ.
While such a lawsuit was inevitable, even if successful, it will not on its own address the other two hounded and ninety appeals that also received orders. Nor will address the hundreds of appeals that are still pending after the initial December 15th deadline.
Clearly, a broader fix is necessary. While quicker decisions is an admirable goal, mandated deadlines such as this result in unanticipated consequences. The real answer to this problem is difficult to implement in tough budget times- more money for ERAC. The Commission is grossly understaffed and has outdated technology to handles the several hundred cases it has pending.
Perhaps there is even the need for appointment of more Commissioners to hear all these appeals. ERAC has three Commissioners and all three hear every appeal. Appellate Courts have more judges than sit on any one panel for a case, why not ERAC?
Its still clear this problem will become worse without some kind of legislative fix either
- giving the money ERAC needs
- increasing its staff and/or Commissioners or
- simply removing the deadlines and tolerating longer appeals.