Tension rises at Gillespie council meeting as more become involved in solar array protest

Tension rises at Gillespie council meeting as more

Local contractor Thomas Bauer stated a sense of betrayal in that the city, after Bauer worked on multiple projects for them, did not contact him for a bid for the installation of the water plant’s solar array despite being licensed for solar work. Coal Country Times photo by Jordan Grucza.

By: JORDAN GRUCZA

Coal Country Times Reporter

The Gillespie city council butted heads with members of the public angered over the way the city has handled a recent deal with IL Solar at Wednesday’s meeting.

Many residents addressed their concerns on top of an already tightly-packed two-page agenda, pushing the 6 p.m. meeting to end more than three-and-a-half hours later, with interruptions for three separate executive sessions.

Prominent among those who were angered by the deal was George Link, who previously attended a council meeting to address his concerns over the solar array for the water plant being installed 50 feet from his home, which he believed would devalue his property.

Link began by asking the council who among them voted to have the solar array to be installed on lots 297 through 300. Members of the council stated that they could not tell him the specifics of this vote offhand.

Among the points Link touched upon were a tree that would shade the solar field more and more each year as it grows and render the placement of the array a moot point, as well as an accusation that the council was violating “24 traditions of Gillespie’s zoning” by placing the array that close to a residential area. City Attorney Kevin Polo reminded Link that there is no mention of solar arrays in the zoning ordinances.

Link stated that he had approached John Hicks in February of 2018 shortly after the city had spoken with IL Solar, asking him if he had intended to keep his neighborhood residential.

“There were 42 people on a petition asked if this would remain a residential area,” Link said. “You said you had no plans of doing this!”

“For a city garage,” Hicks said. “That’s what they signed the petition for, and I said, ‘No, I will not put a city garage there.’”

At this point, the two began raising their voices and talking over one another. Hicks brought down his gavel in the interest of moving on and allowing other guests to speak. This action brought an outburst from several guests, with one woman calling on Hicks to resign.

Thomas Bauer approached the council after this, introducing himself as a local contractor.

“Every time I bid a job for you guys, I bid against other contractors,” Bauer said. “I am licensed to install solar. I actually talked to (Gillespie treasurer) Dan Fisher about the job. You guys never reached out to me. I do every little job for this town, but you didn’t reach out to me for this.”

“I know we put the bid in the paper,” Hicks said.

“Not the Gillespie paper,” Bauer said.

“We don’t have a Gillespie paper that’s daily!” Hicks said. “Would you want to wait two weeks for something to get done?”

“You had one bid on this project,” Bauer said. “That’s it. There should have been multiple bids on this project. That’s state law. You violated state law.”

Fisher stated that this was not a violation of state law. A police officer who was present at the meeting stepped in between Bauer and the council members, as Bauer was becoming visibly worked up over the handling of the bid.

IL Solar owners Dave Ronen and Mike Putnam were present to clear up misconceptions about the solar deal.

“In my opinion, we found the best spot for the array,” Ronen said. “I’ve done over 500 arrays.”

Kevin Sievers, a guest at the meeting, asked Ronen if he would have chosen to put the array in this place if he lived in the area. Ronen stated that he doesn’t mind them and would be willing to put them right next to his house.

“We have 6,000 panels at Blackburn College,” Ronen said. “We have them all over the state right next to farms, homes, subdivisions. We have them in a lot of places.”

“I live right across the field from you,” said Alderman Wendy Rolando, addressing Sievers and Link. “I would not be happy if they were as close to my property line as they are for you. But, on the flipside, you did not own the property, so you could not control what went on it. It’s city property, so city had the option to do what they felt was best for the city. Would I be happy with it? No, I wouldn’t. But whenever you don’t own that property, you’re taking a risk of something like this happening.”

Former Gillespie Alderman Steve Kluthe took a sympathetic tone regarding the difficulties of decisions like this, but stated that he believed the council didn’t think through the solar plan thoroughly enough before acting on it, and thought it was a conflict of interest for Fisher to agree to using the same company who installed his solar paneling for his own home.

“The first company that came to us was not IL Solar,” Fisher said. “Another company came to explain to us what it was and how it worked and they gave us some ideas about some things we could do. At that time, Blackburn was in the middle of doing their project and we reached out to them about how we could get grant money as well as other things involved in the process.

“When it comes time to bid, you may get one, you may get two, you may get 12,” Fisher said. “You don’t know until that time. It’s a function of what they’re good at and whether or not they have time to get the project done.

“We did not intend to do anything to hurt anyone’s property values or do anything vengeful,” Fisher said. “I got nothing out of this. I bought my solar panels and paid for them in cash a long time ago. Yes, I used IL Solar. I got bids from three different companies. I have no tie to these folks.”

Fisher also clarified that it would be “a fallacy” to think that subsequent bids for the solar or any project would yield demonstrably lower numbers, as many contractors will be forced to back out, usually due to scheduling, if there are multiple rounds of bids.

In other actions, the council unanimously approved the adoption of an ordinance authorizing and providing for an issue of up to $6,950,000 waterworks system revenue bonds for the city of Gillespie for the purpose of paying a part of the cost of constructing and installing facilities in the municipality.

Next meeting

The Gillespie City Council will hold its next meeting Monday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m. at City Hall.