Monongalia County commission meeting gets heated over issue of transparency

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The weekly Monongalia County Commission meeting was held on Wednesday, but it took a turn during the public comment section.

Specifically, it took a turn when Jim Kotcon, a member of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said he was concerned and disappointed with the lack of transparency the Commission had shown about tax breaks towards Longview Power’s plan to build a natural gas plant.

The Sierra Club and other environmental activist groups have continually spoken out against the plan because they said that there is not an energy need and that it would be an environmental hazard. The contract being negotiated with the county is worth roughly $58.2 million and will run over the next three decades.

“They’ve asked for a FOIA and what we will do is we will turn it over to our attorneys and follow the rules and so on,” Commissioner Tom Bloom said. “The only thing that has been agreed upon, real clearly, the nonbinding term sheet that is public information, everything else is still in negotiation and where does it say we’re supposed to negotiate with the Sierra Club?”

Bloom rebutted Kotcon’s statement and said it was the Sierra Club that lacked transparency based on a previous contract that had been signed when Longview was creating its coal power plant.

In the original contract, he said, Longview had agreed to pay $500,000 annually to the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation (ASF), which is run by the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited and the National Parks Conservation Association.

The agreement established a mitigation fund to address acid deposition and greenhouse gases and created a way to help local citizens and businesses to mitigate air and water pollution. In an email forwarded to Bloom, from the CEO of Longview Jeff Keffer, ASF is shown to have spent more than $1.2 million on lawyers, with a remainder of roughly $1.6 million left in the bank and having spent a fraction of their money on cleaning and remediation.

“They’ve only used $355,400, less than 10 percent so I think it’s a little hypocritical to come before us when we’re being open and clarifying where the money is going and what we’re doing with it when they didn’t spend the money that the contract had agreed to,” Bloom said. “So I believe the taxpayers, the board of education, the citizens have the right to ask ‘where did this money go’. One of the things we’ve noticed is that it’s going to lawyers and stopping other events rather than the funding of what was supposed to be and I believe that they have to come up with an explanation and that’s what we’re asking.”

Kotcon said he would return to next week’s meeting with an explanation of the spending ASF has done so far. Commission president Edward Hawkins said he would wait until the figures are explained before commenting on the matter.

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