BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
Different opinions have brought the Vermilion County’s recently passed electrical aggregation referendum into question.
Vermilion County and Danville voters passed a referendum in the Nov. 6 general election giving the county the right to create an electrical aggregation program for residents throughout the county.
The county met with its electrical aggregate provider, Integrys Energy Co., following rumors of an objection to the recently passed referendum.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon said the meeting came on the heels of word there might be a challenge to the referendum — specifically as to which residents it includes.
McMahon said he had been told there was opposition to the referendum that questioned whether the county referendum could include citizens in Danville or if the city had to pass its own referendum to approve the program.
He disputes the idea, saying the public act that allows for electrical aggregation programs does not indicate only certain areas would fall under the scope of the referendum.
“We’ve checked with counsel,” he said. “Lawyers for Integrys say the law is clear.”
However, Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said he was contacted just prior to Election Day by Ameren, whose representative voiced the concern that the referendum would only cover unincorporated areas of the county and not the city and other municipalities.
That, according to Eisenhauer, would require Danville and other municipalities to pass their own electrical aggregation referendums.
“What I’ve been trying to do since then is get some definitive legal opinion from Illinois Commerce Commission or the attorney involved with electrical aggregation,” he said. “The majority of opinions I’ve received so far indicate that the county-wide referendum applies to unincorporated areas.”
Eisenhauer said he has not received a final legal opinion on the issue, but hopes to have one in the next 10 days.
The referendum passed in the city by nearly a 2-1 margin, 6,512 votes to 3,326 votes. The county was closer, with 9,818 residents voting to approve and 8,521 voting against.
The deadline is the first week of January if Danville officials decide to put an electrical aggregation referendum on the April election ballot. Eisenhauer said the issue would first have to pass through the city’s committees and council.
At this point, neither Danville nor Vermilion County have been informed of an objection to the referendum or received formal notification regarding a legal challenge to the referendum. Under the state statute, the county must receive customer data from Ameren in order to set up the program and officials have not been denied that information, McMahon said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Bill Donahue provided legal opinion for the city and county when questions first emerged about the referendum. In his interpretation, the county has the authority unless one of the municipalities rejects the idea of the program.
“To me, unless someone in the county registers an objection before it gets on the ballot, then the county has the authority to act,” he said.
Donahue added he has spoken to attorneys who deal with government situations and was told the statute was not written well.
McMahon noted no problems with the legality of the referendum were brought up prior to the general election.
He said Vermilion County is the first county to have a successful referendum pass that envelops the entire county.
“I’m prepared to take this issue all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court,” he said. “The law seems very clear.”
Under the aggregation program, the company buys electricity for large groups and thus receives a lower rate. It passes that lower rate along to the groups it represents, such as the county. Integrys was selected by the county to handle the electrical aggregation program if the referendum passed.
Under terms of the statute, Vermilion County must submit a plan of operation to the Illinois Commerce Commission. The aggregation program, once approved, would include a fixed rate from Integrys and go into effect in January.
The program would be an opt-out program, allowing people to formally indicate they do not want to take part, if they so choose.