OSWEGO – Two Labette County commissioners agreed Monday to explore hiring a law firm to help slog through wind energy contracts.
The commission hasn’t agreed to support wind energy development, though Commissioners Brian Kinzie and Cole Proehl say they are investigating it. Commissioner Lonie Addis is against wind development in the county. Shopping law firms was Kinzie’s idea that Proehl supported. Kinzie said he received the names of three or four law firms familiar with wind energy from his discussions with other commissioners in Kansas at a recent meeting of county officials in Liberal.
RWE Renewables, a German utility company, is looking to harvest wind in the western half of Labette County, from Meade Road to Douglas, from 19000 Road to 8000.
Kinzie’s motion on Monday was to get advice from an attorney well versed in wind farms to protect the county’s interests. He said the firm would help the county through the agreement process. Proehl seconded the motion. Addis thought the move was premature and wanted to know more about the firms. He said this is a big decision and he wants to know what happens when the turbines outlive their useful life.
“That’s all part of the discussion,” Kinzie said.
He added that he hopes that Great Plains Industrial Park would land a refurbish center, apparently for turbines.
Proehl said whether the wind development goes through or not, there will be lawsuits.
“I just want somebody to protect the best interests of the county,” Kinzie said.
Addis thought the commission could just direct County Counselor Brian Johnson to look at different law firms and make a recommendation to the board.
Kinzie said that’s what he wants to do. Addis didn’t think that required a motion.
Kinzie then said there was a motion and a second on the floor. Addis laughed and called for the vote. He voted no because he didn’t have adequate information at the time.
Proehl asked Addis what other information he needed. Addis started to interrupt Proehl, but Proehl stopped him.
“Let me finish. Please,” Proehl said. “This is not saying we’re going to do this. We’re not signing anything. We’re not agreeing for wind farms. We’re not disagreeing with them. If you want a moratorium or a road agreement there’s going to have to be attorneys involved. Is that not true?”
Addis said yes.
“OK. So what is the harm in looking at potential attorneys to look at our options and to be prepared?” Proehl asked.
“I just think it’s jumping the gun a little bit, commissioner. I really do,” Addis said.
“And that’s fine. I don’t have an issue with your feelings,” Kinzie said.
The motion passed 2-1.
Addis said he didn’t know if he wanted to use the list of attorneys that Kinzie had. Kinzie said the firms were some of the best in the state. He added that Johnson may know of others.
Kinzie also distributed a petition to media attending the meeting from change.org. The petition purported to collect signatures of those against wind development in Labette County. On Friday, Kinzie noted that some of the names on that petition were suspect. Others were from people who lived out of state. He argued that The Sun published that a group against wind development in the county collected more than 900 signatures of people opposed to the project. The change.org petition had 161 names. One questionable name was “Mr. Amazing.” Another was “Luna xxx.”
Lindsey Wilson, one of the organizers of that petition drive, told The Sun Monday that the change.org drive was the first attempt to collect signatures. When the signatures were coming in from areas outside of the county and state, the group decided to move to a Google form so they could vet signature collection. She said she also previously shared with commissioners the petition with the more than 900 names of Labette County residents against wind development. She shared the petition with The Sun as well this week. The petition has names of people almost exclusively from Labette County. One signature showed Kansas City as an address. More than 900 signatures represented people living in all three commission districts who oppose wind development.
Kinzie also told those attending Monday’s meeting that if they or others had questions of him, they needed to contact his attorney, Robert Myers. Kinzie and commissioners are facing a lawsuit.
Kinzie is also facing a recall petition, which is being circulated in the 2nd District, where the RWE wind farm would be located.
Indigent defense contract
Myers and Lucas Nodine visited with commissioners Monday.
The county contracts with four attorneys, Alan Brereton, Amy Ross, Shane Adamson and Douglas Steele, to handle misdemeanor cases, traffic cases, child in need of care cases and juvenile cases. The contract now pays each attorney $2,600 a month, or $31,200 a year for the work. The total cost to the county is $124,800 a year. Johnson asked commissioners last week to consider raising that amount to $3,000 a month.
Myers and Nodine asked for $3,500 a month, or $42,000 per attorney a year. This would be a $43,200 total increase to the county, $168,000 a year total for indigent defense.
Myers said over the years case counts have increased as have overhead costs, but the county’s payment for indigent defense (those who cannot afford to hire their own attorney) has not kept up with inflation. Other neighboring counties pay more for this contract work.
Ross works in Myers’ office. Brereton works in Nodine’s.
Myers said he and Nodine knew the commissioners were working on budget, so they wanted to make the proposal for the board to consider during its deliberations. He said the indigent defense contract is not a money maker.
“It helps us out, but it can’t be a money loser,” he said.
He’s watched Ross spend a lot of time on the cases and other office staff spend a lot of time on paperwork.
The child care cases create a lot of paperwork, he said.
Nodine said the alternative to having these contracts is paying attorneys the going state rate, $80 an hour. He said Brereton has spent about 75 hours on these cases in a month.
Addis said Johnson has been asking commissioners to consider an increase. He asked if the commission could bring the rate up gradually, perhaps $200 a year rather than going from $2,600 to $3,500.
“The cases aren’t going up gradually. The cases didn’t go up gradually. They’re here now. We’re having to deal with them now. I’ll be very frank with you. We’re having to turn away people that are calling wanting to hire us so that we can do the amount of work that we need to do on this contract. I can’t keep doing that,” Nodine said.
Myers said courts are opening back up after the pandemic. Cases are mounting and docket calendars are getting full.
“There’s no pushing these off,” Myers said.
Proehl asked what the alternative was. Paying $80 an hour for indigent defense if no attorneys take the county’s lower-paying contract could bankrupt the county, he said.
“If we don’t do something, no one will do it,” Proehl said. He said the county would be getting off cheap at $3,500 a month per attorney.
Addis said the commission will have to bring the issue up when they visit with Mac Young about the district court budget, from which indigent defense contracts are paid.
All three commissioners were on board with the increase after the discussion. No vote took place, however.