Four of five members of the committee charged with studying the impact of wind energy in Labette County met Wednesday morning and were sworn in, scheduled two meetings and began dividing issues for study.
Attending the meeting in the Labette County Health Department were Sandy Krider, Labette County Public Works director; Rod Landrum, retired executive director of the Labette Health Foundation; Mel Hass, who formerly lived within the footprint of a wind farm in DeKalb County, Illinois, before moving to rural Oswego a year ago; and Lori Whitworth, an Oklahoma attorney who formerly lived in Neosho County, where Apex Clean Energy is building a wind farm. Charlie Morse, the county’s sanitation officer and emergency management director, facilitated the meeting as a non-voting member and was elected chair Wednesday. Committee member Kevin King, a crop insurance agent who lives near Big Hill Lake, could not attend Wednesday.
The Labette County Commission created the committee to look into wind farm regulations after a German utility expressed interest in developing a wind farm in Labette County.
RWE, a German utility company, is exploring the possibility of developing a wind farm in the western half of the county. The development, if it moves forward, would be a couple of years in the future, but commissioners want to be prepared and know the issues before then. Commissioners implemented a one-year moratorium on wind farm construction, until November 2020, while the committee meets and makes recommendations to commissioners.
On Wednesday, County Counselor Brian Johnson reviewed the Kansas Open Meetings Act in some detail with the committee members and how to avoid common mistakes that lead to KOMA violations, from what makes up a quorum (three members for this committee), to email correspondence between committee members, to the language to recite before going into closed session, to limiting closed sessions to the time announced.
He said if the board wants to include public comment, it should create a way to do that so that meetings are not interrupted or delayed. Limiting speaking time to three to five minutes per person is one way as long as rules are applied unilaterally.
The main thing is to be transparent, he said. Documents shared with committee members in open session become a public record subject to the Kansas Open Records Act, which Johnson also discussed.
“You will never, ever get in trouble legally or with the AG’s office … for making things public. If you can be transparent, be transparent,” Johnson said of the committee’s work.
Johnson also discussed conflicts of interest and how to cure them. He asked a question: Can a public employee conduct business for personal gain and not disclose that to the public if his company does business with the public entity? Johnson said the Kansas attorney general has ruled that this conflict must be disclosed. So if a commissioner owns an oil and gas company and it sells oil and gas to county, he or she must disclose the conflict.
If one of the committee members leases to a wind energy company, they could continue to serve on the committee, but they could not participate in discussions, closed sessions or votes to avoid a conflict. So the best option would be to vacate the seat, Johnson said. If a non-disclosure agreement prevents them from discussing their lease, Johnson said the best thing to do would be just resign. They may be asked why they are resigning, but they would not have to disclose why.
He brought up a case in Kansas courts that relates to conflicts. A dentist went before a planning and zoning board in Kansas to speak against a building being erected near his building. At the meeting, a planning board member walked down from the board table and told the dentist that the new building would be a benefit to the community. The planner then walked back to the board table.
The planner neglected to share that his wife owned 55% of the new building being voted on. The building project advanced and headed to a final vote when the planner disclosed his conflict and didn’t vote on the final question. The case ended up in court and was appealed. The justices ruled that any conflict must be disclosed from the beginning. Since the planner didn’t disclose the issue, the project was pushed back to the beginning.
Johnson said the way to cure a conflict is to make it public and fill out the proper forms that explain the conflict. Failure to disclose a conflict is a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The planner received a suspended sentence, probation and a fine, Johnson said.
Johnson said the committee’s main charge is to see if zoning is necessary in Labette County and if it should apply to wind energy. The committee also will study nine issues proposed by commissioners and others that may come up. The nine issues include setbacks from residences, roads and property lines, ecological impacts on wildlife, decommissioning issues at the end of life for the turbines and the impact on county infrastructure.
He said commissioners will want a synopsis of what the committee finds so they can consider acting on that information.
“But they are going to rely extremely heavily on the information that you provide. The more information you have and the more backing for your position that you have with statistics, information, public input, whatever it may be, do that,” Johnson said.
He encouraged committee members to look at the project from the beginning through decommissioning.
“There’s always going to be an impact. And there’s always going to be some type of destruction no matter what. The question is what is your recommendation for what it should be and why,” Johnson said.
Johnson left the meeting after his presentation. Committee members divided study topics for possible reports at the next meeting.
Hass said he would review setbacks. Whitworth will study decommissioning. Landrum will review the impact on wildlife. Krider will look at the impact on the county’s infrastructure.
Committee members decided that Morse would chair the meetings. As facilitator, he does not have a vote.
They also agreed to meet twice in January and move the meeting locations so the public can attend. Meetings will be in the morning and in the late afternoon. The committee will allow public comment at least at the late afternoon meetings.
The next meeting will be at 9 a.m. Jan. 14 tentatively in the basement of the Parsons Municipal Building. The second January meeting will be at 5 p.m. Jan. 28 in the road and bridge building in Altamont, 901 S. Huston.
Committee members also want to visit wind farms in the region to gather information. Hass said at the next meeting he will give a presentation on wind farms that he shared with county commissioners.
Landrum said it looks like the committee has its work cut out. Hass said he likes the fact that the commission is trying to get in front of the issue as soon as possible.
“I love it when it’s proactive rather than reactive,” Krider said.
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