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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

Commission member confronts county counselor on hours billed

By Charlene Sims,

MOUND CITY – At the Tuesday, Feb. 20, Linn County Commission meeting, Commissioner Jim Johnson and solar-farm opponent Mark Briggs complained about the amount that was being paid to County Counselor Gary Thompson.

Two weeks ago, Briggs asked Commission Chair Jason Hightower to resign, County Clerk David Lamb to be more accountable in providing information for Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) requests, and asked that the county hire a legal counsel that has less opinions and more legal facts.

The discussion on Tuesday touched on the issue that Briggs and other solar opponents have made numerous KORA requests from county officials, including Thompson. Those requests come from that group presumably looking for wrongdoing by those officials with regards to solar utility developers and their plans to build solar fields near the La Cygne power plant.

In an email, County Clerk Lamb said he had from 10 to 15 actual KORA requests, but many of requests included follow up-questions, emails, and other correspondence. He said they have asked for any and all correspondence between county officials and solar companies, records of Gary Thompson’s billed hours, taxes paid by Evergy, how taxes are split up, and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) from Kansas Wildlife & Parks, and other organization.  

“I have probably spent 40-plus hours dealing with their requests, emails, phone calls,” Lamb said. 

He added that Zoning Administration Darin Wilson has spent several hours copying all his correspondence, and Thompson has spent a few hours answering his questions about their requests and giving me responses to send to them. County Treasurer Janet Kleweno and Register of Deeds Kristy Schmitz have both answered questions as well.

So far, the only charge of wrongdoing that has been made specifically about the county officials interacting with solar companies is that Jason Hightower met with a representative from one of the companies at a restaurant.

However, that only would have been illegal if one of the other commissioners had joined him, but apparently neither Johnson nor Commissioner Danny McCullough have met with those companies, preferring instead to get their information on solar energy from the solar opponents group. 

On Tuesday, Thompson brought up a KORA request that had been requested for his billing invoices, which were provided. Then, he said, the log that he shows the commissioners with the details of his hours was requested. 

He said that if the commissioners wanted to provide that it was fine, but some things needed to be redacted for the sake of privacy.

Johnson said he saw no problem with providing log of Thompson’s hours, presumably redacted, to the solar-opponents group. 

He said that he did see that Thompson had started charging the county for extras on the meetings.

“You’re starting to charge after two hours,” said Johnson. 

“Only if the meeting goes past noon,” said Thompson. “If you look at my original agreement, it says that I allocate two hours for the meeting typically, and if it goes past that two hours I charge like it’s part of the hourly rate.”

“And you’re saying you are only charging us if it goes past noon?” asked Commission Chair Jason Hightower.

‘There’s a lot of things on there that I guess I don’t know about, so I guess I think you work for us and there’s a lot of things that go that you’re talking to planning and zoning and even right down to you’re talking to an elected official about solar,” said Johnson. “I don’t understand that. If we’re going to talk about solar with the elected official, why don’t we talk about it to everybody.”

“My role as county counselor has typically been to provide legal advice to anybody that is employed by the county commission or by the county. When somebody comes to me who is an employee and asks for a legal interpretation about something or legal advice about something and its something I know anything about, I provide it,” said Thompson.

“I just see a lot of extras on there that I don’t know anything about,” said Johnson.

Thompson told Johnson that his original base agreement was eight to 10 hours a week.

“I have trouble with that I guess,” said Johnson. “You know there are times I reach out to you with emails, text messages and phone calls and I don’t get any returns.”

“As I have told you before, I have stopped responding to you outside of the meeting because I don’t work for individual commissioners, I work for the group,” said Thompson.

“So, who was you talking to about the solar, I guess,” said Johnson. 

Johnson asked since solar was such a hot topic, why wouldn’t they talk about it in public.

“It gets brought to our attention in the meeting a few weeks ago that there’s been lots of discussion even you involved on a time line that goes back to the solar issue,” said Johnson.

“I have not had any discussions with any of the solar companies,” replied Thompson. “I sat in on one Zoom meeting when they were asking what we needed on the application.”

“It kind of concerns me that I didn’t know about it,” said Johnson. “It looks to me that there’s been a lot of interaction with this solar deal that wasn’t brought to my attention.”

“It’s kind of like the redacted version when we talked to the solar attorney,” said Johnson.”I still don’t have a redacted version, so I don’t know what to talk about.”

County Clerk David Lamb told Johnson that he did not remember if he ever asked him for it. 

However, Johnson talked about the letter at the Oct. 2 meeting. He had questions about the letter of representation from the solar attorney, Trish Voth. The letter was a standard routine business practice for setting up a contract with an attorney but had privileged information in the letter that was redacted.

At that October meeting, Johnson indicated that he had a copy of the letter and asked Thompson why he (Johnson) could not show the letter to anybody.

“I still don’t know what can we talk about and what can’t we talk about,” said Johnson at Tuesday’s meeting.

Thompson asked Johnson if he was asking about what the blacked-out parts were. 

Johnson yelled, “I still haven’t seen it so I don’t know what’s been taken off is what I’m asking you. The redacted version got thrown out there and I still don’t know what I can talk about.”

“I think we should have been told to begin with,” said Johnson.

“Maybe you just forgot,” said Hightower.

Johnson replied, “I don’t think I forgot this.”

Johnson then asked Hightower what his dinner meeting was about.

Hightower said that the company had reached out to Johnson as well and that if Johnson answered his phone he was welcome to reach out to them himself and form his own opinion.

Solar opponent Alison Hamilton interrupted and asked if her group could get an updated version of the two hours Thompson is supposed to be there on Mondays.

Hightower made an effort to bring the meeting back to the issue. 

Johnson made a motion to release Thompson’s summary logs and it passed unanimously. 

Later, during public comment solar opponent Mark Briggs, one of the people requesting the KORA documents, told the commissioners that his group had done a request for Thompson’s salary and compensation previously.

Briggs said that the employee contract doesn’t actually state seven to 10 hours or anything about that. He said that the contract stated that his salary back in 2016 was $84,000 and currently he gets paid $99,284.

“So I guess the seven to 10 hours I do have questions about because it’s not in the employee contract,” said Briggs. “I guess I’ll follow that with a little more so with the records that I have received so far we’re paying him an extra of anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 a month. So, I think it would be very important if that is or isn’t in his contract that we are paying that much extra every month.”

“Another thing is, there’s a lot of oversight within the county itself with everyone that does work here, and I feel like everybody kind of has free range with Gary and I don’t understand if there’s extras that the county’s paying for, especially if it’s $4,000 to $10,000 a month.

“Why you guys wouldn’t okay that first? Doesn’t that seem a little crazy? So does he just have range of anybody that works here or is an elected official can go to Gary for a legal counsel at any given time? Because you also state that you don’t work directly with Jim because you’re working with the commissioners but you’re singling out other hired employees or elected?”

“I don’t work for Jim, that’s correct, I work for the commission,” said Thompson.

“I think you have taxpayers in here that want to know why we’re paying all these extras if it’s not in the contract,” said Briggs. “I think that adds up pretty quick. I mean we sit up here every week. We’ve been here for six or seven months and all you guys talk about is funding of the county. I mean an extra $4,000 to $10,000 a month adds up pretty dang quick.”

Briggs continued saying, “It is frustrating as a citizen itself to stand up here, sit here every week and we don’t see you guys get a lot accomplished. I feel like there’s a lot of turmoil between the three of you that negatively affects the county. As you guys know, I’ve watched meetings as far back as YouTube supports them and the commission used to not be that way.”

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