Smithville Electric System now has the blessing of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to proceed with plans to build a new substation on South College Street.
During a special meeting Monday evening, the Aldermen voted 3-1 to overturn a decision by the Smithville Planning Commission to disapprove of SES’s plans for the substation at the proposed location.
Aldermen Josh Miller, Shawn Jacobs, and Danny Washer voted in favor. Alderman Gayla Hendrix voted "no" saying she needed more time to study the issue. Alderman Jason Murphy was absent.
“I’m not voting “no” because I don’t believe it’s the correct place to put the substation. I am voting no because I have not had time to investigate it,” said Alderman Hendrix.
“I’m voting “yes” because we put the (SES) board in there and I respect their decision to move forward with this,” said Alderman Washer.
Smithville Electric System made this appeal before the Mayor and Aldermen after a ruling by Chancellor Ronald Thurman last Wednesday. In his decision, Chancellor Thurman found that when the Smithville Planning Commission disapproved the substation project during a meeting on June 14, SES did not have the authority to overrule the planning commission but should have filed an appeal with the Smithville Board of Mayor and Aldermen asking for a simple majority vote to overturn the planning commission’s decision. SES had 30 days to make the appeal.
Local developer Joe Rice, through his attorneys Sarah Cripps and Brandon Cox, brought the action against Smithville Electric System and the City of Smithville on September 2 in Chancery Court asking for a declaratory judgment and an injunction to keep SES from building the substation near his subdivision. While not a party to the lawsuit, other residents in the neighborhood are also opposed to the substation there.
After Mayor Jimmy Poss opened the special meeting Monday evening, Alderman Hendrix made a motion that the vote be delayed to give the council more time to study the issue especially since the Chancellor had not yet signed an order on last Wednesday’s ruling. Her motion died for the lack of a second.
“This is a complicated issue. I’ve had several people in the community approach me about it. I sat in on the hearing last Wednesday but I missed the ruling and I asked for a copy of the ruling before tonight. I got Ms. Cripps’ order that she drafted but I understand the attorneys for the city and Smithville Electric have submitted a competing order. When there are competing orders we don’t know which one the Chancellor is going to sign. Based upon that and the fact that I would like to read the transcript of the court file from Wednesday’s hearing, I personally feel that I don’t have adequate information to go forward with a vote tonight. I need more time to study this. I make a motion that we move this to see which order the Chancellor is going to sign and then look at that order and specifically what it tells us to do and then do the research we need as far as our charter, the Smithville Electric System by-laws, and I’d like to see a site plan of this substation. I’d like to see the zoning ordinances. We need to thoroughly investigate it,” said Alderman Hendrix.
City attorney Vester Parsley said whichever order the Chancellor signs will be the same on the key issue of requiring the Smithville Electric System to come before the Mayor and Aldermen to seek an appeal to overturn the decision of the planning commission. “ Both of those orders specify that Smithville Electric is to come before the board. There isn’t any difference in that provision of the judge’s order,” said Parsley.
“What bothers me greatly is that we have a board in place (planning commission) to review this type of thing. We appoint those folks to do that. When they said “no” this is not an adequate location and don’t put it here, the Smithville Electric Board went forward anyway. That concerns me. Why do we have these boards in place? Because there are checks and balances in government,” Alderman Hendrix continued.
During last week’s hearing, Rice’s attorneys Cripps and Cox asserted that the planning commission disapproved SES’s plans based on the grounds that the proposed location by SES is inconsistent with the city’s Land Use and Transportation Plan.
Alderman Jacobs, a member of the Planning Commission, said the reason he voted “no” at the June meeting was because there had been no time to study the proposal. “As a member of the planning commission, I know several members including myself voted “no” that night because we didn’t have enough information. We didn’t know it was coming our way at the time. It was plopped down in front of us. We had no where the information we should have had to be able to make a decision and that’s why I voted no. I know some other members said the same thing. We have had more information since then,” said Alderman Jacobs.
At the beginning of the meeting Monday evening, Mayor Poss cautioned that no questions or comments would be allowed by the public and that the purpose of the meeting was for the aldermen to either vote to uphold or overturn the planning commission’s decision on this issue. And when attorney Brandon Cox approached the mayor and aldermen with a petition signed by 124 residents in the neighborhood and elsewhere in the city opposing this project, he was warned that if he kept talking he would be escorted out of the meeting room by police.
After the meeting Attorney Sarah Cripps told WJLE she was concerned that the mayor and members of the board of aldermen stifled any public discussion of this issue.
“I was astounded that the males on this board (aldermen) sought to mute all discussion from people who opposed what they (aldermen) had already decided what they wanted to do. The only reason you suppress the right of the people to voice an opinion to those who are elected to represent them is when you know you are going to do whatever you want regardless of the popular will. And for this board to say we don’t care and we don’t want to educate ourselves is an abrogation of their duty,” said Cripps
“Think of what the power board itself did. The arrogance of a body to say we don’t have to go before the planning commission. That we are a law unto ourselves. It is absolutely appalling,” Cripps continued.
“Electric substations are unsightly. They are required to remain lighted at all times. They generate visual and auditory pollution. Half of the acreage that this body (SES) purchased in its arrogance is in a protected wetlands area. They admitted that they disturbed that area because we the electric board did not think we had to investigate that.”
“It concerns me that two members of the electric power board who claim to be attorneys and know the law determined that a state statute did not apply to them and determined and took action to subject the city to inverse condemnation lawsuits by all of the surrounding property owners".
“I’m just ashamed of my government and I think it’s let me down,” she said.
Cripps went on to say that the SES is not representative of the city at large because there are no women or minorities on the board.