|Public forum brings demands for transparency|
|April 10, 2014 Jerry Purvis|
More than 75 people packed the Gering City Council chambers Thursday night to express their unhappiness with a lack of transparency with a proposal to site a meatpacking plant in the community.
The meeting was scheduled as a town hall meeting by Ward IV council members Troy Cowan and Jill McFarland. While they were ready to discuss any concern, most people were unhappy with the city over the proposed plant.
McFarland said she and her fellow council members knew nothing about the proposal when they were contacted by constituents who heard about it on social media.
“All we knew was that the mayor has been working on this project since Scottsbluff opted out of the plan,” she said. “Research was being done in September and five city employees were required to sign confidentiality agreements.”
One of those employees, City Treasurer John Mejia, traveled with a group of investors to South Korea last October to inspect the company’s plants. It was the investment group that requested that a city employee accompany them on the trip. So City Administrator Lane Danielzuk picked Mejia as their representative.
“This personified bad government to the utmost degree,” McFarland said. “We have no transparency, no communication with the public or elected officials, and five employees were sworn to secrecy. I have a real problem with that. It’s time for the public to join the council demanding full disclosure regarding this project, to include any and all details.”
First to speak was Matt Kautz, who is one of McFarland’s constituents.
“If this is such a benefit to our city, why is it being done behind our backs?” Kautz asked. “And where is the integrity of the officials running the city? I know it will be hard to trust any of them again.”
RaNae Garton with the Gering Merchants Association also spoke, asking whether the city’s wastewater plant could handle the volume a meatpacking plant would discharge.
“The industrial side of the wastewater plant would need to be upgraded, and that could cost up to five million dollars,” Garton said. “Is the company going to pay for that or is the citizens of Gering? We had the same issues with Packerland before they closed. I’m all for bringing businesses to Gering, but I wonder if this is a business we really need.”
Ward IV resident Robin Kinney said the city is responsible to the residents, not to some company that wants to come in.
“Scottsbluff went through the same thing with the same company last year,” Kinney said. “They decided not to go ahead with it.”
Kinney added that Gering’s infrastructure couldn’t handle the plant’s needs.
“Two years ago we needed a new water well location. This plant will use a million gallons of water a day,” Kinney said. “If we’re looking at the long term life of our water supply, I don’t know why we’d even consider this.”
Darrell Bentley said that while everyone wants economic development, no one wants a smokestack. He said the “cream and gravy” businesses don’t come to town because we can’t compete with other communities with larger financial resources that throw money at businesses to attract them.
Jeana Harms, who recently moved here from Torrington, said they had a similar situation when Wyoming sited a prison there, but many of the objections proved invalid.
“I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but we should look into it,” Harms said. “Small towns in this country are either growing or dying. We should look at something that works well with our agricultural community. The fear of the unknown should not drive our decisions.”
Council member Troy Cowan said the council was elected to speak for the people. “We’re the ones who will take the heat for this one way or another,” he said. “The public should be able to tell us exactly what they want.”
McFarland said that even though rumors are circulating through the social media, both the public and the council still know very little about the scope of the project. She plans to discuss the proposal further during the April 14 city council meeting and urged those who came to the town hall meeting to attend and become informed.