GREG LOWER

ERIE – Controversy over the planned Neosho Ridge Wind project was calmer, or at least shorter, during Thursday evening’s Neosho County Commission meeting when commissioners heard from two people.

Lori Whitworth, a spokesperson for the opposition, addressed the commission on its decision to approve agreements with developer Apex Clean Energy. She said she thought she was participating in government, but what she witnessed was not open and transparent. She said the outcome was based on politics.

Whitworth questioned how long Commissioner Gail Klaassen studied the agreements before voting in favor of approval, and contrasted the length of the agreements with the moratorium motion Commissioner Paul Westhoff made June 13.

“There has been so much secrecy” as well as contradictions and lies, Whitworth said. She said she was not able to see the contracts until the afternoon of the vote, although she claimed that previous commissioners wanted them published beforehand.

Whitworth, an attorney, also took issue with executive sessions under attorney-client privilege to discuss negotiations.

“It is a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety,” she said, adding that attorney-client executive sessions should be used only for pending litigation.

Whitworth requested a proposed moratorium on wind power development be held in open meeting, which drew applause from the audience.

Ed Spielbusch also urged a moratorium, and took issue with a heated exchange last week with Commissioner David Orr.

“I’m not going to be bullied by a fellow commissioner,” Spielbusch said, saying Orr could not tell him who to talk to.

Spielbusch urged taking up to a year to create a reasonable framework to protect residents.

“It is just a pause,” he said.

Before the public comments, Klaassen asked about the fund that will be set up for payments that Apex plans to make in lieu of taxes and how the funds may be allocated. County Counselor Seth Jones said how the money is spent would be voted by the commission.

Klaassen said she is still studying the proposed moratorium, which is scheduled for discussion at the July 9 meeting.

Orr also mentioned a Wall Street Journal article on wind power projects, and how one was stalled in 2017 when it failed to receive approval from Missouri officials.

Orr said wind energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel, although Westhoff disagreed.

 

Other county business

Commissioners also heard a protest from a former county employee Thursday evening.

Addie Madl said she was terminated from the Road and Bridge Department Monday after telling Klaassen June 11 she felt harassed and that her job was in jeopardy. Reading from a written statement, she cited state statutes requesting in writing for a copy of her personnel file and requested she be notified about future meetings to discuss the issue. The commissioners gave the matter to the county counselor with no action.

At the start of the meeting, Orr attempted to prevent Madl from speaking on the grounds that she was a Crawford County resident. His motion to remove her from the agenda died without a second.

Commissioners also met with Kansas Department of Transportation officials and discussed several issues, including progress on the US-169 rebuilding project and funding for a bridge on the previous 169 route.

District Engineer Wayne Gudmonson said he was on a listening tour. He said he has talked to Topeka officials about a new program that could fund a replacement for the bridge on Elk Road between Chanute and Humboldt, which has an eight-ton limit.

Under the cost-share program, local officials provide 25 percent and the state provides the rest of the funding. Gudmonson said the state has appropriated $11 million, and the program is likely to continue at least as long as the current governor is in office.

Westhoff said he thinks a replacement bridge will cost more than $5 million.

Current work on US-169 between Humboldt and Iola is six months ahead of schedule and could finish today. KDOT officials said the project south of Humboldt could be let in October 2020 and begin in the spring of 2021.

Commissioners also met with Levee Superintendent Mark Blackburn, who asked for help repairing the Brogan Levee. He said he has not gotten footage on the break or a damage cost estimate, but it will be very large and a financial burden on the district residents.

Blackburn said K-47 runs through the levee district and he hoped to tie that in as protecting the public interest. But Gudmonson said KDOT would not participate since the levee does not protect structures.

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