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updated: 8/7/2011 8:53 AM

Lisle hearing defines cross-examination

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The following exchange occurred when a Lisle resident cross-examined the chief operating officer of a company that wants to put a bus yard in a big unused parking lot.

"Do you think that 70 buses honking could wake up people within 250 feet?" Brian McClure asked John Benish Jr., COO of Cook-Illinois Corporation.

Benish responded: "I'm not sure."

"Would you like to live 250 feet from 70 buses honking? Would that be comfortable for you?" McClure asked.

"Yes it would," Benish said.

"Would it be comfortable for your kids?" McClure asked.

Benish: "Yes it would. My kids love school buses."

How far the pendulum has swung in the battle over how accommodating local government needs to be in allowing the citizenry its voice.

Fitting, too, that the latest exchange occurred in Lisle, which in many ways has been ground zero for this debate.

In 1999, residents sued Lisle, alleging flaws in the public hearing process that led the village annexation and rezoning of the property where Meijer wanted to build one of its first stores in the suburbs. Eventually, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that residents' rights had been violated when they weren't allowed to question Meijer officials during public hearings.

And it was a well-informed citizenry several years later that exercised -- some said exceeded -- those rights in relentlessly grilling leaders of Navistar about plans to move their corporate headquarters into the vacated Lucent building on Warrenville Road.

At one point, when citizen leaders, who had engaged lawyers at this point, talked about issuing subpoenas to Navistar executives that the engine-building giant walked away from their deal and gave every indication they'd be relocating in another state. It was only after the governor and attorney general's office intervened and negotiated a deal between the residents, who had complained of everything from the environmental impact to the tax breaks afforded to Navistar, that the deal was consummated.

Some felt the latitude given to residents who fought the Navistar project had gone too far, and it was out of this that a limiting rule was enacted: Residents who don't live within 250 feet of a proposed development must register a week in advance -- and get permission from the zoning board chairman -- if they want to cross-examine witnesses.

A similar measure was proposed statewide, and awaits the governor's signature. But according to a citizen advocacy group, the bill is a shell of its former self. It basically allows local governments to set their own rules, and there's concern in some quarters that may result in some truly limiting measures.

So, yes, for now resident are allowed to "cross-examine," but it wasn't until this week's meeting in Lisle that I have heard it used in the context of resident protest at a local government meeting. The word "subpoena" was tossed around more than once, too.

It seems that the residents of Lisle feel especially empowered and ready and willing to play the role of inquisitor if their ox is being gored. And, yes, it might certainly slow up the approval process, and given the state of the economy, is it prudent to give local business the impression government is out to further stifle them. It's a delicate balance. The one-issue Lisle planning and zoning board meeting this week on the topic of whether to allow a 70-bus depot in the parking lot of the former Tellabs property lasted more than three hours.

And perhaps one can see how these cross-examinations might get rather tedious, repetitive and even personal. But, you know what: the leaders of industry and other important people who have a project needing local government approval ought to be able to take the grilling.

John Benish Jr. certainly gave that impression.

He was asked by another resident: "You can say under oath that if you live within 250 feet of a place where there are beeping horns at 4:30, 5 o'clock in the morning, the horns would not bother you whatsoever?"

"Correct," Benish said. "That's what I said, yes."

"Would you say that again?"

"Yes," he said.