Commissioner: ‘You suck at democracy’

GREG LOWER

ERIE – A Neosho County Commissioner leveled heavy criticism at the commission chair Wednesday, but stopped short of asking she be removed.

David Orr, 2nd District Commissioner, criticized 3rd District Commissioner and Commission Chair Gail Klaassen for her handling of county departments and the lack of notification when she tested positive for COVID-19. The remarks came at the end of a nearly eight-hour meeting Wednesday, but in the end, Orr did not make a motion that she be removed as chair.

“I have some issues that hurts my heart,” Orr said. 

Orr said Klaassen was abusing her title and that county employees and department heads think they should report to her rather than the commission as a whole. He said Klaassen spoke privately with accountant Rodney Burns in preparation for Wednesday’s budget meeting and with engineer Alan Lankford for discussion on the courthouse HVAC system.

“There’s private meetings that other commissioners have no knowledge of,” Orr said, also citing Klaassen’s meeting with the county human resource director and the head of the health department.

“You suck at democracy,” he said.

He said if Klaassen were a chief executive officer of a public business, she would be prosecuted for insider trading.

“You have been much more informed,” Orr said. “I have to make my decisions off the cuff. I don’t like making decisions right now (when you have advance knowledge of a situation).”

Klaassen appeared to be caught off-guard. 

“I didn’t know I was gathering more information than you had gathered,” she said.

Orr asked that department heads report to all commissioners.

“They are supposed to come here with the information,” he said.

Under Neosho County’s three-person commission system, two commissioners make a quorum and one privately discussing county business with another could be a violation of open meeting rules. Some other Kansas counties have a five-member commission with an employed county manager.

“We three equally are the county manager,” Orr said. “We have to do this together as a team.”

He said he did not know if Klaassen even realized what she was doing.

“No, I guess I don’t,” Klaassen said. “I definitely want to be a team. I am learning, trying to learn.”

She said Lankford, who operates in Missouri, had a misconception about the role of county chairman, which is a different elected position in that state.

In August, Klaassen and her daughter tested positive for the coronavirus, which caused commission meetings to be cancelled. Orr said she notified her church six days before contacting the commission, and said she violated the Kansas Association of Counties code of ethics.

“Luckily, no one became deathly ill,” Orr said.

He made his remarks from the podium instead of his commission chair, and removed his face mask before reading from notes.

Budget business

The meeting to this point appeared cordial. Commissioners began with a budget workshop with Burns, and went through later budget drafts before approving a 2021 budget with a slight mil levy decrease.

Commissioners scheduled a budget hearing for their next meeting on Sept. 24 with a levy of 53.242 mils, down 0.08 mil from last year.

An earlier draft had a levy of 53.48 mils after taking into account valuation protests by Ash Grove Cement, reimbursements from SPARKS and CARES Act COVID relief funds, and requests for salary increases.

“I’m just nervous about 2022,” Klaassen said, noting that they would be increasing the budget by an amount the county may not have that year.

Appraiser Bob McElroy said Ash Grove did not protest its 2019 valuation but protested 2020, and a hearing was held in April. The protest, if successful, could reduce the county revenue by as much as $252,000.

Some county departments also requested salary increases for employees, while other departments didn’t.

Klaassen said the commission is not giving raises, but will look at the situation in January and is budgeting for the possibility of some raises.

Part of the budget moves involved funding for the Osage Mission Museum, the Fair Board and the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum through the Neosho Ridge Wind project Payment in Lieu of Taxes funds and out of the general fund. Klaassen said other museums in the county, which include museums in Erie, Thayer and Galesburg and a second museum in St. Paul, have expressed interest in county funding.

Other county business

In other business, the commission voted to extend a moratorium on future wind farm expansion in the county beyond the current Neosho Ridge Wind project.

The previous moratorium would have expired Saturday and the new measure extending it to Sept. 9, 2021, passed unanimously.

A committee to advise the commission on issues has not produced anything, but Chanute Regional Development Authority and Southeast Kansas Regional Planning Commission Director Matt Godinez, who has volunteered to facilitate the committee, told Klaassen that he would have something for commissioners next March.

Klaassen said she is also concerned about the possible legalization of marijuana as a crop, about chicken or hog farms, and about solar panels, although she does not favor countywide zoning.

County Clerk Heather Elsworth said there already is movement on a plan for a company to purchase land on Shaw Road for a solar photovoltaic electrical-generation facility.

Commissioners also discussed a request by Neosho Ridge Wind project developer Apex to extend its road use agreement. Commissioners are upset that part of the proposed roads have already been groomed.

Klaassen said the company wants to use roads in the Earlton area, which Orr said was due to changes by the Kansas Department of Transportation. He said the road work was done locally and not by Apex.

Apex wants to use the Earlton-area roads and the former US-169 for the two northernmost windmills, which are in Klaassen’s district. She asked County Counselor Seth Jones to file violations against Apex for the unapproved use of the Earlton area roads.

Orr said the county’s system of fines for road use agreement violations is not working. Commissioners want to see an engineering report on the Earlton area by the firm Olson.

The commission’s discussion with Lankford about the new HVAC system ended with the decision that it will go out for bids Monday. Project bids will be opened Oct. 8 and financing bids will be opened Sept. 24. Klaassen said the county received approval on a $206,000 request to use COVID-relief funds for an air purification system.

Commissioners tabled a resolution that raises the level requiring competitive bids to $7,500 from $2,000 in a 1994 resolution. Commissioners voted to opt out of a federal executive order that would allow them waive payroll Social Security taxes for the rest of the year.

Commissioners voted to allow Road and Bridge Director Mike Brown purchase two used KDOT dump trucks and other equipment for use as winter snow plows. The purchased trucks will be backups during the summer, and older trucks would be salvaged for parts.

Brown reported the fall free clean-up will be Oct. 20-24 at the county landfill.

“The more we take in, the more we have to not pick up out of the ditches,” he said.

 

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