There’s a growing perception that Reno County Commissioners have had enough and are no longer interested in hearing public comments on the pending decision of building a wind farm near Haven. I am relatively sure this isn’t true but it isn’t surprising. An unfortunate, misguided decision was made cutting off taxpayer input before an upcoming planning board public hearing. Even more grievous was a ruling that commissioners will not take public comments when they consider the planners’ recommendation, only re-viewing summaries.
The commission needs to reverse that decision and hear personally from everyone wanting to express an opinion when they take up the planning board’s decision. That’s the way it’s been in the past and the proper way Hutchinson City Council members handle planning recommendations, allowing public comments when considering their planning board’s recommendation. Frankly, it’s the only way to restore confidence that publicly elected and paid officials are willing to take the time and interest in hearing from all parties before critical, life and property impacting decisions are made.
Reno County has excellent, well qualified planning board members and staff. But these are appointed, not elected officials, and citizens should be able to make arguments directly to their elected officials because they are the only ones directly responsible to voters. To do otherwise places too much power into the hands of those not answerable to those who put them into office.
With decisions like the county commission recently made, it’s no wonder so many citizens distrust and oppose government when they are told they have no right or opportunity to express themselves at decision making time. Not everyone with an interest in issues coming before the planning board can attend their meetings. At the very least those not able to speak at a public hearing should be given a chance to express themselves. In addition, as noted in one of several Western Front letters on this subject, written transcripts of what was said cannot convey the emotion or true sincerity of what some say.
The commission’s decision to restrict and greatly limit speech not only on the vitally important wind farm decision but all future planning and zoning issues seems largely influenced by County Counselor Joe O’Sullivan who has long wanted to restrict these public discussions, citing the quasi-judicial nature of these decisions. O’Sullivan has an overly cautious and highly technical view of how these matters should be handled that is obviously not shared by how Hutchinson city officials manage similar situations and how a number of other counties approach allowing public comments before planning board recommendations are acted upon.
While most readers will never personally go before the county commission on a zoning matter everyone has a vital interest in making certain government listens at every level to citizen/taxpayer input before arriving at a final decision. That’s why those interested and concerned about good, responsive, willing to listen government should insist, as others have rightfully suggested, that this policy be reversed or amend-ed to enable a more free flow of public comment.
O’Sullivan’s fear that commissioners should strictly only consider arguments made before planners to avoid a lawsuit is misguided because of the over-riding need to have less restrictive, open and receptive local government. Besides that, the wind farm issue, which unjustifiably prompted the restrictions, is likely to wind up in a lawsuit regardless of whether it is approved or rejected.
This new policy fosters mistrust in government at a time when it should be encouraging not limiting public access and participation. That’s something all of us should be fighting for. The current commission can easily correct what is happening by simply admitting a mistake and turning what one observed termed “not your finest hour” into a solid step for public confidence and renewed trust in local decision making.