ERIE – Neosho County Commission Chair Jennifer Orr submitted a letter of resignation to Thursday evening’s meeting, citing stalking by opponents of the Neosho Ridge Wind power project.
Orr has not attended commission meetings during the past two weeks, and said in her resignation letter her residence has been questioned. Commissioner David Bideau read the letter aloud, and it said members of her family have been followed and photographed.
Orr said she did not want to be a distraction and thinks the harassment was prompted by Neosho Ridge opponents because she favors the project. The letter was dated Thursday and Orr resigned immediately.
Orr was elected in 2016 running as an independent candidate, although she later affiliated with the Democratic Party. Normally a local party would nominate a replacement to be appointed by the governor, but County Counselor Seth Jones
said that as an independent at the time of the election, the choice would go to Gov. Laura Kelly. Jones said he would confirm that with County Attorney Linus Thuston and County Clerk Randal Neely.
Orr missed several meetings in December and commission meetings were rescheduled from Friday mornings to Thursday evenings to accommodate her work schedule.
For the first time in several weeks, the commission did not hear any speakers on the Neosho Ridge project during the public comment portion of the meeting, but instead heard from both supporters and opponents who asked to be on the agenda.
Opponent Lori Whitworth raised issue with a paid advertisement from Apex Clean Energy, the developer of the electrical generation project, about the scope of road use agreements.
“Apex argues what suits them at the moment,” Whitworth said, mentioning conflicting positions on regulation at the state and county level.
At one point, Bideau declined to answer Whitworth’s questions. He said agreements with Apex are still under negotiation.
“When the agreements are ready for a vote, the commission will vote on the agreements,” Bideau said. “I’m not going to comment until the agreements are ready for the commission.”
Bideau said the agreements should be voted on by three commissioners.
Commissioner Paul Westhoff said the public needs to know what is in the agreements before the commission votes. He also said the county should make road-related decisions in the agreement.
“It should be the county that makes the road agreement,” he said.
The Road Use Agreement is one of three agreements that need to be negotiated and approved to move the project forward. The other two concern monetary contributions to the county during the federally-mandated 10-year exemption period (Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT) and decommissioning after the project has outlived its use, an estimated 25 years.
On the other hand, project supporter Ron Vyhlidal raised issues with a mailer sent to some Neosho County residents identified only as being from “people who care.” The mailer cites a survey in opposition to the project, but Vyhlidal said he received information that the pollster walked away from people who supported the project.
Opponent Dustie Elsworth, who also spoke Thursday, previously has given some information on a poll he said he is conducting, but later declined to release other information. Vyhlidal mentioned Elsworth’s poll and also alleged teenagers were allowed to sign in opposition.
Elsworth has not made his survey questions, answers or parameters public, but cites its findings often.
Vyhlidal also challenged Westhoff’s early support and later opposition to the project.
“After the election, you changed your attitude,” Vyhlidal said.
Westhoff said he changed his mind after receiving information.
“I’m going to do what I think is best for the county,” Westhoff said.
Elsworth questioned whether procedures for closed executive sessions were properly followed at a special meeting last week with an attorney hired to represent the county in negotiations. He said the attorney later met with Jones and what Elsworth called the “Apex crew.”
According to Kansas statute, those meetings all fell within Kansas Open Meetings Act guidelines for attorney-client privileged discussions.
Elsworth also quoted recommendations on how to conduct a recent survey by helicopter of raptor nests and said they were not followed.
Supporter Toni Carter said she wanted to give the perspective of how supporters feel. She cited services that could benefit from economic support, and also the benefits to farmers and agriculture. She said the leasing of 44,000 acres for the project showed support, and said opponents were creating fear and mistrust based on information that is untrue or unfounded.
“I am so disheartened to hear about Jennifer,” Carter said.