The heroine of the week is Lake County Commissioner Elaine Renick.
It's hard to find an elected official who knows more about water and the public policy governing its distribution than the south Lake Republican.
Lake County just saved $1 million, and it's because of Renick's depth of knowledge, cool demeanor under fire and ability to persuade her colleagues not to back down, despite advice to the contrary from their lawyers.
The issue was a demand from Niagara Bottling Co. to pay what it spent in legal fees during the fight over the state's drinking water supply.
Niagara won the battle to get water for its Groveland bottling operation, and then the company that wants residents to believe it's a good neighbor went after taxpayers for attorney fees. If that's a good neighbor, how does a bad one act?
In the end, Niagara caved. A spokesman for the company didn't return a call asking why the firm backed off its demand for the fees, said to top $1 million.
But the answer is apparent to anyone studying the sequence of events.
Niagara asked for legal fees because it thought it could prove that Lake County had singled out the company for retribution and that commissioners were out to punish Niagara rather than protect the interest of its citizens when they decided to fight a water permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District.
The first order of business for the company was to take sworn statements from those involved in the fray, and Renick was No. 1 on the list.
After her testimony, Niagara canceled two other depositions and came to the county and offered to negotiate a settlement. There's a good reason for that, and the reason was Renick's performance under oath.
Renick coolly explained that Niagara was not the first big water user that Lake County had fought, and she named others, including the powerful Orlando Utilities Commission.
She talked about the Niagara well being in a "water caution area," an environmentally poor choice of locations, and she stressed that the county's opposition "had absolutely nothing to do with the particular people associated with this company."
She insisted that the county had not fought to keep the company from operating — only from withdrawing water.
"As long as they were trucking it in, we were fine," she said.
Anyone who listed to the tapes of the commission's closed meetings — they are allowed to meet privately over lawsuits — would conclude that commissioners had the public's best interest at heart, even if the St. Johns district did not, she said.
"It was the issue of punching another well in the caution area. Over and over again, it was the public interest and how the St. Johns was not really considering that," she said.
Commissioner Jimmy Conner credited Renick with stopping Niagara's claim: "She shot holes through a lot of what they were contending."
In the end, Niagara dropped its demand for legal fees. But the good neighbor company wanted to hold hands with Lake County and smooch in public. By Niagara's offer, the two would participate in a charity event together, issue a joint press release in which the county would state it was just tickled pink that Niagara moved here, and the county would beg the state to give Niagara incentive money for the jobs it brought to Lake.
That lit up Renick. In the closed meeting, she just refused to join ranks with the company the county just spent more than $355,000 fighting.
Just how angry was she?
"I'm looking down the table at Elaine, and blood is shooting out of her eyes," Commissioner Jennifer Hill said.
Renick fumed at the other commissioners: "I told them, ‘They're trying to punch us. We're being used here,'"
She got backing from Conner.
"I dug in. I was just about going crazy," Conner said. "I said, ‘You really want me to put my name on that?'"
Hill said she wanted Niagara to apologize to the county.
"Then I saw they wanted two letters of support from us," she said. "I just lost it."
Lawyers, however, were less certain. They reminded commissioners that they would be back in court if they didn't give a little. They urged compromise, the commissioners said.
"I don't think our lawyers served us well on this," Conner said.
In the end, an agreement was written in which the public gives up nothing. The substance is that the county merely agrees to treat Niagara like any other company. The approval of the administrative judge is all that's needed to close this chapter for Lake.
On Tuesday, however, the story could take a different turn.
Niagara is asking the same judge to make Groveland pay its attorney fees. Already, Groveland has spent more than $1 million of taxpayer dollars in its own legal fees in its fight against Niagara. That's about $144.92 for each of its residents, enough to buy every soul in town a brand new iPod Nano — in one of nine snazzy metallic colors.
Lauren Ritchie can be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com You may leave her a message at 352-742-5918. Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times