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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

Commission chair responds to attacks by solar opponents

By Charlene Sims,

MOUND CITY – Opponents of proposed commercial solar projects – along with County Commissioner Jim Johnson – continued verbal attacks against County Counselor Gary Thompson and Linn County Commission Chair Jason Hightower on Monday. They spent nearly an hour and a half on that line of argument during the Feb. 26 commission meeting.

However, in a prepared statement Hightower chided the solar opponents for their tactics of outbursts and interrupting commission meetings so that nothing gets accomplished.

Hightower also accused them of making threats towards every person that disagrees with them and being ruthless and without compassion in pressing for their agenda.

Rural Pleasanton resident and solar opponent Emily Thies started the attacks on Hightower by saying that Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) information that she had received showed that Hightower had communicated through short phone calls, texts and emails several times with solar development company EDF Renewables starting in May 2023.

Thies asked if this was appropriate for one commissioner to talk with a company or do the commissioners need to appoint one commissioner to be the liaison with a company. She asked if all commissioners were supposed to be briefed with this information in commission meetings.

Thies suggested that having five commissioners would probably help with communication among commissioners. She then asked if there was a lead person for working with the solar companies. The answer was that no one had been designated that role.

Hightower said that he was gathering information for himself.

Historically individual county commissioners have been free to discuss business with representatives from companies, organizations or individuals to get information or work on proposals

For example, last year Johnson contacted the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Department on his own to negotiate a deal that would replace the county’s current health department, a deal that neither Hightower or Commissioner Danny McCullough were interested in pursuing. Any proposal like that needs a vote by a majority of the three commissioners in open session to become binding.

The only time a meeting between a commissioner and representatives of a company would be deemed inappropriate is if two or more commissioners met with them at the same time without calling for a special public meeting. If that were to happen, it would violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).

Following Thies’ comments, Johnson asked Hightower how he could go to Thompson and talk with him about information on the solar companies. 

Hightower told Johnson that Johnson directs things that are on his agenda, apparently referring to Johnson’s conversations and meetings with solar opponents.

Johnson asked Thies when the conversation was that Hightower had with Thompson about what to put on the moratorium resolution. She said Nov. 22.

Thompson said that he drafted the moratorium resolution based on what he heard from all three commissioners in the commission meeting. He said that he had already drafted the resolution before Hightower had contacted him.

“That sure is a good answer, Gary,” said Johnson.

“Are you calling me a liar, Jim?” asked Thompson.

Johnson said that Thompson in October would not answer or return calls to him.

Thompson replied, “I won’t answer to you. I work for the commission. You know why I don’t (answer your phone calls). I don’t answer them because you harass me and antagonize me.”

County Clerk David Lamb commented that the resolution that had that wording in it was presented at a later meeting and the commissioners voted for it. 

Hightower said that the resolution was explained to them in an executive session.

Thies said that a lot of things are coming to light about bringing solar in here. She said it makes it look like back door deals.

Solar opponent Alison Hamilton then spoke saying she was following up on a KORA request that the group had done on Thompson’s salary and compensation. She said they were still looking for the correct contract that shows eight to 10 hours of working time for Thompson. She questioned why Thompson’s contract said he was a full-time employee. 

Thompson showed the commissioners a contract with three pages.

Hamilton had only received the first two pages of Thompson’s three page contract and suggested that there was something deceptive about that. She said if she brought in a third page to a contract that wasn’t signed, they wouldn’t believe her.

“If there was anything that I brought here and you guys hadn’t signed it, it wouldn’t be binding, right?” asked Hamilton.

Next Sheri Gentry, again a member of the group opposing solar farms, angrily spoke and accused Hightower of deception and accused him of sabotaging the moratorium resolution. She then urged his district to recall him.

Gentry then verbally accused and attacked Thompson. “Who gave you, Gary Thompson, the permission to change the moratorium verbiage based on the request of one commissioner, Jason?”

After these outbursts, Hightower read a response that he had prepared to share with the audience.

“I am fully aware of who I am and what I am. When I take a job, I go all out, usually until I burn out, it’s just how I’m wired. From being the kid who couldn’t even win the county fair cattle show to raising three national champions, from a summer break teller to a senior vice-president of a bank, I have always strived for greatness.

“That is all I continue to look for from this process, that we make the right decision for all of Linn County. I have let you know that I am not asking you to give up, that I’m counting on you to make sure we get it right. Yet, all I get from you is complaints about how things are going and how unfair things are, instead of making arguments to support your opinions.

“I will continue to have meetings in public that I deem as necessary to this office as well as serve on boards and committees to further my understanding. I’m a public official after all, with nothing to hide. I will continue to meet with employees and take their calls to try and help them accomplish their jobs rather than strike them down.

“You two are free to conduct yourselves as you see fit. You don’t answer to me on how you do your job you answer to the voters in your district just as I do.

“I’m not there to fall in line or bide my time until my term runs out. I will continue to do this job my way, no matter what the establishment says, and if that’s not good enough, I won’t be reelected and I can deal with that.

“I ran for this office saying that I would be reasonable, responsible and professional. I am going to continue to listen to complaints and pushback when I feel like they are unwarranted. Ask you as citizens for suggestions on how to make it better rather than just agreeing with you or going to your side as that is how progress is made.

“I don’t have all the answers but together we can figure out what the answer is to any problem through good conversation, clear reasoning and professional discussion.

“In regards to your remarks about my handling of your solar objections, I’ve tried to explain in private to those who appear to be more reasonable in your anti-solar group why I don’t respect your petition that was set out.

“Your yellow box is 12,280 acres, which isn’t allowed in our regulations. You had them setting on counters of businesses and available online with no one to witness who was signing or where they were from.

“You continue to not understand how the decommissioning process will work, only giving out part of the information on it even today after you’ve been involved in going over the regulations. These may be minor oversights in your mind, but I’m not going to give my support to half truths and exaggerations.

“Personally, my biggest issues with the group in this room is not your rights or you exercising them, but it is my opinion that you feel like your rights are more important than everyone else’s rights and your inability to see that there is another side out there.

“Your advertising of the public forum doesn’t welcome anyone from the other side. 

You are trying to pull off a magic act to continue to say no one is on the other side.

Your actions in this room are a further example of this. 

‘In closing, I believe that every option should be explored. Are you confident that turning down 100s of millions of (dollars for) development is a good thing? I am not sure yet.

“I think we should go through at least the (conditional use permit) process to find out. Our legal counsel that we hired to help us through this process, not to fight against you as you have been told incorrectly, says that we can still deny a cup with the same findings required to do a ban. 

“In my other jobs, I have always strived to have as much information as possible when making decisions. I will continue those processes as commissioner.”



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