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Council leaves beef plant discussion open
April 17, 2014 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis
Several agenda items regarding a potential meatpacking plant in Gering were up for discussion, but the only agreement the city council was able to come to was a zoning code amendment, giving the city more control over any potential sites.

A nearly full house of local residents was also present for the Monday council meeting, and many voiced their concerns about the city’s lack of transparency over the project.

“I think it’s time for us to divulge to the public and the council whatever information is available,” council member Jill McFarland said. “I know the city can’t divulge names of investors or financial information, but we need to know what the city has done and the status of the project.”

Fellow council member Rebecca Shields thanked the public for their support, saying she first heard about the project via social media. “I try to come to every meeting with an open mind but it’s hard to do when I don’t know what’s going on.”

City Administrator Lane Danielzuk said he received an email from Keith DeHaan, who represents Future Foods Energy, saying he was saddened by all the exaggerated attention their inquiries had brought the city. However, he added the inquiries have not led to a defined project at the current time.

Mayo had in the past asked council members to do their “due diligence” in researching the proposed plant. And McFarland said she didn’t understand why the city would ask others to do the background research city staff should be doing.

Shields said any due diligence done by the mayor and city administrator should also be shared with the council and with the public before anyone else gets involved.

The meeting turned sour from there, as Mayo accused Shields of not reading the emails he had already sent regarding the project. “You chose not to agree with any of the information I sent you,” the mayor said. “Instead, you put your finger in the political wind to see what way it blows. It’s not my call if you can’t answer your constituents.”

McFarland took exception with the mayor trying to shift the blame onto Shields, which Mayor denied he was doing. He added McFarland was equally as guilty, which drew a groan from the gallery.

The meeting was opened to the public to speak and Gering resident Robin Kinney came up first. “I think Jill and Rebecca both point blank asked a question that you’ve managed to talk circles around and not provide an answer,” she said. “They’ve asked for transparency and you’ve said nothing. We have a right to know what’s going on in our community and we’ve only gotten smoke and mirrors.”

Council member Dan Smith said as far as he knows, no meatpacking plant is coming to the city and the council hasn’t been asked for any type of policy toward such a project. “This has been stirred up through Facebook and a couple of council members,” he said. “It will be a long time before any discussion will even come before the council or the people.”

Council member Julie Morrison said she believed mass hysteria was driving the controversy, and Shields and McFarland were involved in it. “What’s everybody afraid of?” Morrison asked. “We know nothing yet and have no information. But everything that people have decided so far has been based on prejudice and bias. We all cry we want industry here, but if it involved someone or something different, everyone gets up in arms. We need to wait and see. Don’t be driven by prejudice.”

Council member Justin Allred agreed nothing has been decided yet, because no proposal has been presented yet. “I want the citizens to know what’s going on,” he said. “We need to attend meetings and stop getting our information off Facebook and media comments.”

McFarland submitted an agenda item to consider releasing 10 Gering employees from confidentiality agreement with the company. That included a lengthy discussion over whether the company or the city had requested confidentiality. McFarland said it would be a gesture to the public the city is trying to be transparent and attempting to take away some of public discomfort over the project.

City Administrator Lane Danielzuk spent some time reading the city’s non-disclosure policy for the public, including potential penalties for releasing sensitive information. He then asked McFarland why she didn’t know about it, given that she was on the personnel committee that revised the policy some years ago.

The city’s legal counsel said the city might not have the authority to negate a confidentiality agreement. And if they do, the city might be liable for any potential litigation that follows.

McFarland’s agenda item to release confidentiality failed on a 4-4 vote.

Council member Larry Gibbs also submitted a resolution that would offer thanks to the packing company for their interest, but cease further negotiations because the proposed facility would not be a good fit for the community. That also failed by a 5-3 vote.

Another agenda item to develop a process for better communication between the council and administration was referred to the personnel committee for further discussion.

A final agenda item did pass by a 8-0 unanimous vote to amend the city’s zoning ordinances, to change the status of a meatpacking from permitted use to use by special exception.

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