Burns: Shining light on water authority’s secretive windmill project informs citizens, enables sound decisions

While critiquing my effectiveness as a state legislator less than two months ago, one of the major newspapers in my district commended me as a “state official who has matured on the job and become a key voice on local issues.”

Nothing about me or my “people-first” philosophy of government service has changed in the past seven weeks. However, what has changed is that I have added my voice to a new local issue – assisting a group of constituents who sought help in unearthing details of a Greater Johnstown Water Authority plan that could put as many as 60 electricity-generating wind turbines on scenic Laurel Ridge.

The crux of this issue – and the reason this group approached me – is that they’ve been kept in the dark as the water authority quietly entered into a legally binding agreement with a private company, Competitive Power Ventures, which wants to use public land for corporate profit.

These residents’ deep concern is understandable: a lease agreement that could have a profound impact on their quality of life and, financially, on their property values, was unanimously approved by the water authority board at its public meeting on July 19, 2018. Tellingly, the minutes of this meeting indicate that no member of the public was present to witness the vote.

Five months later, the water authority scheduled and advertised a special public meeting – at 3 p.m. on Dec. 13 – for the purpose of discussing the already-approved land lease agreement. This meeting generated a full house, and I was there, not to “grandstand” as some have inaccurately accused, but to openly help shed light and question the secretive nature under which this deal was concocted.

If the way this went down isn’t a case of putting the cart before the horse, what is? I challenge anyone – in or out of public office – to defend a process whereby a public agency like the water authority, which oversees assets owned by the people, should concoct a lease agreement with great potential to disrupt lives – then only after signing on the dotted line, give those people a chance to learn details and weigh in on the project.

My own investigation of the nitty-gritty of this project, conducted at the behest of my constituents, turned up what is, to me, another very troubling finding. It revealed that the Nov. 16 court order that paves the way for a wind turbine farm to come to Laurel Ridge doesn’t allow the water authority to lease this public land for any other purpose – or to any company other than CPV.

Even if things had procedurally been done the right way and even if all residents were offering enthusiastic support for this project, without soliciting competitive proposals for the use of this land – either for other purposes or from competing wind turbine companies – how does the water authority know it’s getting the best deal?

Doing business in this fashion does not treat the taxpaying public as the equal partner it deserves to be in any major financial decision by the water authority board. Especially when, as documents show, the water authority acknowledges and understands that these wind turbines “will cast shadows or flicker onto the property, impact the view on the property or on an adjacent property or otherwise cause visual effects, and will cause or emit noise, vibration, air turbulence, wake and electromagnetic and frequency interference.”

For my efforts in siding with the obvious right of the people to know how their government is making important decisions on their behalf, I’ve become the target of those who prefer, for whatever reason, that the governed be kept in the dark on this matter.

I’ll stand and take those verbal slings and arrows, because being “a key voice on local issues” sometimes means turning on the light switch so that everyone can see what’s happening in the dim room.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, represents the 72nd Legislative District.