A battle over a proposed southeast Kansas wind farm has a Labette County commissioner fighting for his job.
His determined opponents may have accomplished the rare feat of getting legal permission and gathering enough signatures to put a recall to a vote.
The technical justification that gives proponents a foot in the recall door is a minor violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
But the underlying reason was an off-agenda item at a meeting in April, where two of the three commissioners voted to enter final negotiations to allow RWE AG, a multinational wind energy company based in Germany, to place 50 to 70 large wind turbines in the county.
The main ethical concern from Commissioner Brian Kinzie’s constituents is whether he or his family stood to financially benefit from the wind farm, as RWE is leasing property around the county.
After Kinzie declined to resign or recuse himself from voting on the project, the “next logical step was a recall,” said Lindsey Wilson, an Altamont teacher and resident of Kinzie’s district.
Most Kansas recall efforts die long before this stage because the state’s requirements for recalling officials are some of the nation’s most stringent.
First, state law only allows recall petitions to be circulated if the county’s top prosecutor – district attorney in some counties and county attorney in others – certifies that it meets legal grounds for a recall laid out in state law.
The only acceptable grounds to get a petition approved are conviction of a felony, misconduct in office or failure to perform duties prescribed by law. Misconduct is defined as a violation of law that impacts an official’s ability to perform their official duties.
In Kinzie’s case, the allegation of misconduct is supported by a finding of the state attorney general’s office that Kinzie and another commissioner, Cole Proehl, violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act by discussing county business in a phone call outside a public meeting.
The act prohibits a majority of a public body from discussing public business outside official meetings, and because the Labette County Commission only has three members, any two members constitute a majority.
Kinzie, who is on his fourth term as Commissioner, declined to comment on the recall process, saying he was advised to do so by his lawyer.
Several of the people who are leading the recall vote are also parties to a lawsuit filed in June that asked for a formal injunction for any future KOMA violations and for a moratorium on any decisions relating to wind development until the recall process is finished.
“I’ve given this community 45 years of my life and I’ll continue to do so until there’s no fight left,” Kinzie said.
The recall proponents need 1,202 valid signatures to force it on the ballot. The preliminary count of signatures turned in was 1,582, said County Clerk Gena Landis.
“We know that some of those may get thrown out because some people just moved into the district or others have since moved from the district, so we tried to go over the required amount,” Wilson said. “This gave us a cushion in case any of those signatures were discredited.”
The petitions were turned in Monday and Landis has 30 days from then to verify that at least 1,202 signatures are from registered voters from Kinzie’s district. She said her office is squeezing it in while preparing for the November election.
“It’s 187 pages,” she said. “It’ll take a minute.”
Recall organizer Mike Howerter said the group is confident that they’ll have enough valid signatures.
“We think it’s in the bag because we vetted every one of those” using the county voter roll, Howerter said.
Although the attorney general’s office declined to file formal charges in the case, and instead chose to require the officials to take a one-hour refresher course on public meeting compliance, Proehl might not be out of the woods yet.
“There has been a lot of concern about Commissioner Proehl’s involvement, and there are members of District 3 who are looking to start a recall process there, but they can’t start until District 2 is finished,” Wilson said. “Only one recall can go on at a time.”
Another recall killer is that supporters have to collect signatures equivalent to 40% of all the ballots cast in the most recent election for the office. They have 90 days to do it and the state law has strict rules on how signatures can be gathered:
▪ A recall petition can’t be circulated until the targeted official has been in office for four months, nor in the six months before their term ends.
▪ The petition can only be circulated by official “sponsors” who have to register with the election office.
▪ Signatures can only be gathered face-to-face.
▪ Signatures can only be gathered within the geographic boundaries of the district where the official resides.
▪ The petition has to have a mandatory warning on it that it’s a class B misdemeanor to knowingly sign a fake name, to sign twice or to sign if you’re not a registered voter within the district where the recall is sought.
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