Time limit set by hearing officer rankles audience

Borrow pit supporters speak for nearly two hours, but the audience is given 15 minutes.

By RODNEY THRASH, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2007

TAMPA - Midway through Hillsborough County's land use hearing Nov. 16, Harold Youmans recessed.

"While I'm breaking," the hearing officer said, "all of you people who are opposed to this thing, all get together, and figure out how you're going to present testimony to me in 15 minutes."

The audience, many of whom opposed a proposed borrow pit in northwest Hillsborough, gasped. They'd waited more than a year to have their say. They'd just sat through nearly two hours of testimony from borrow pit supporters, expert witnesses and the county staff. Now, they were being asked to present their side in 900 seconds.

"Aww, aww, totally unfair, right?" asked Youmans. "Due process rights are being impinged again, right?"

Darn right, said three people who attended the hearing and fired off e-mails to top county officials saying as much.

Ultimately, Youmans relented and granted extra time to some speakers. But his effort to limit their time rankled many, and some didn't get to finish their arguments.

"I am not a newcomer to public hearings, and have to say that with over 20 years of hearing experience right here in Hillsborough County, the proceedings were the WORST I have ever seen," wrote Lorraine Duffy-Suarez, the school district's growth management director, who took issue with the way Youmans questioned people.

Duffy-Suarez's e-mail and two others prompted one commissioner to ask the county attorney's office to "initiate whatever process is necessary to determine whether protocol was followed during and leading up to this hearing and notify us of your findings," said Jess Johnson, aide to Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

County code allows 15 minutes of testimony from the applicant and their witnesses; five minutes from county staff; 15 minutes from proponents; 15 minutes from opponents; five additional minutes from staff for any amended recommendations; and five minutes of rebuttal from the applicant.

Rodney Thrash can be reached at 813 269-5303 or rthrash@sptimes.com.