The issue of what constitutes a conflict of interest prompted some conflict at Thursday’s Hays City Commission work session.
Commissioner Kent Steward suggested the commission revisit existing wind energy regulations to establish a process for granting exceptions, which could allow some commercial-scale turbines in an extraterritorial 3-mile zoning radius surrounding Hays.
“The problem, as I see it, is that this ordinance doesn’t allow for any exceptions where you would have the benefit of wind turbines and not the downside of having them near where people live,” Steward said.
The ordinance currently allows for towers only up to 125 feet tall in the 3-mile zone. A request to amend the city’s policy was submitted by Fort Hays State University to the Hays Area Planning Commission this summer. FHSU administrators have announced their intent to develop a small wind energy project.
City Attorney John Bird said Steward should abstain from voting on and discussing the issue, as he is employed by the university. Bird said state statute prohibits any elected official from participating in public policy if a perceived conflict is present.
The procedure calls for officials to publicly disclose the conflict and refrain from participation. If an elected official violates this state statute, he or she forfeits public office, Bird said, noting the city has been threatened with litigation.
“I did not go and check your statements of substantial interest. You’ve already told me you’re employed by the university,” Bird said. “I have found before and I find again that there is a conflict of interest for employees of the university.”
Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV also is employed by FHSU. Schwaller did not participate in the discussion Thursday.
Steward disagreed with Bird’s opinion and said the issue of the wind energy ordinance affects the entire community.
“I am an employee of Fort Hays State University, but I believe you were the first person to even mention the university here tonight. I’m talking about a general ordinance that applies to the entire community,” Steward said. “If such an ordinance were passed, and if the university would make an application for an exception, well then, certainly this question of conflict of interest would arise. This is no different than me voting on something that has to do with police or fire protection. The university’s affected by virtually everything we do here.”
“I understand that, but I also understand that this agenda item specifically talks about Fort Hays State and you are addressing this agenda item. There are three employees of the university out in the audience,” Bird said. “I just don’t think that you or Commissioner Schwaller have the legal (right) to take part in a discussion on something that is only here because the university applied for it.”
The Hays Area Planning Commission in October opted to leave the existing ordinance in tact. Discussion of the city’s wind energy zoning regulations, as requested by Steward, will be discussed at a future work session.
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