Concerns over a lawsuit from Invenergy has prompted citizens of Worth County to create a legal defense fund that has already garnered nearly $10,000 in support.
Worth County Planning and Zoning Commission chair Jeff Gorball, who is also involved in the citizen’s legal defense fund, spoke to the board of supervisors on Tuesday morning about the fund.
“In an effort to help ease your concern of the financial burden on legal actions’ impact to the budget, a fundraiser for county legal defense has been created,” Gorball told the supervisors. “This should be a testament to how strongly the public wants to support you, and taking up the ordinance as soon as possible, and not let Invenergy’s threats dissuade you.”
Concerns over a lawsuit against Worth County arose because of Invenergy’s Worthwhile Wind project, which aims to create a 30,000-acre wind farm in the county.
Opponents of Worthwhile Wind have pointed to the negative impacts of wind turbines on the health and safety of county residents as a reason for more regulation. Proponents of the project claim there were no objections to the wind turbines until recently, and point to the $4.8 million in tax revenue the project would bring in for infrastructure improvements to the county.
An ordinance on wind energy was drafted by the planning and zoning commission and proposed to the board of supervisors partly in response to the Worthwhile Wind project.
The fund’s GoFundMe page points to the ongoing lawsuit in Hardin County by Invenergy as a reason for the fund’s existence.
As of Friday, the legal defense fund has raised $9,400 between 10 different donors.
Gorball said that the importance of the fund is to back the supervisors, and persuade them to accept the wind energy ordinance without concern of a lawsuit from Invenergy.
“It was felt that if the supervisors are concerned from a fiduciary perspective of the cost of a lawsuit … this fund was set up by citizens to say we’ll help,” Gorball said. “We’ll help fund defense as a county if that’s what it takes.”
Questions over the validity of the fund split the board of supervisors. Mark Smeby said he was unsure if a fund raised by citizens was valid, as he believes the cost of a potential lawsuit would fall on the taxpayers.
Supervisor A.J. Stone had a different outlook, saying he believes there’s no reason the money raised from the defense fund couldn’t go toward paying a lawsuit on Worth County’s behalf, if one were to arise.
Supervisor Enos Loberg declined to comment on the defense fund.
Kristi Harshbarger from the Iowa State Association of Counties said that she didn’t believe there were any issues or regulations preventing citizens of Worth County from aiding the county in a potential lawsuit.
“Counties get donations for various reasons and can use those funds,” Harshbarger said. “I can’t think of any overarching prohibitions.”
However, state law prevents elected officials from receiving gifts of any kind from a party that stands to benefit from that officials service or work.
There was also some concern over Gorball’s involvement in both the citizen’s legal defense fund as well as his acting role as planning and zoning commission chair. The fund, for which Gorball is actively soliciting donations, would likely be used to defend the ordinance that Gorball and the commission had a hand in crafting.
Stone said he doesn’t think there’s any issue.
“I wouldn’t think there’s any conflict if he did contribute to that because he is a citizen who lives out in that portion of the county,” Stone said. “I would think he’s entitled to contribute if he wanted to.”
Smeby made his opinion less clear, saying he isn’t a lawyer and was not sure if Gorball’s involvement was a problem or not.
“I’ll leave that up to legal counsel,” Smeby said. “I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if what he (Gorball) is doing is ok, or not.”
Loberg declined to comment.
The board of supervisors has yet to make any decisions regarding the ordinance, which was introduced nearly two months ago by Gorball.
The supervisors have stated during the past few meetings that they are waiting to hear back from their legal representation before moving forward with an official vote on the ordinance.
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