The Johnson County Board of Commissioners held a special meeting Monday after severe weather the previous week shut down much of the region closing businesses, schools and scheduled events.
The postponement of the regularly scheduled meeting allowed commissioners and a group of Johnson County residents time to prepare talking points on an issue related to the possible creation of a Fracking Oversight Committee.
Commissioner Ernie Henshaw originally suggested the county begin preparing for the possibility of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing here by putting together a committee that would present information to the board and help it to be more “pro-active” to the issues surrounding the practice. Residents who oppose hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, suggested the formation of such a committee would send a message that Johnson County was preparing for fracking and not waiting for the results of a coming ballot initiative that seeks to ban the practice within the county.
In March, the voters of Johnson County will have an opportunity to voice their approval or disapproval of hydraulic fracturing through a non-binding referendum that asks: “Shall the people’s right to local self-government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health, safety and a clean environment?”
Should the referendum pass, it would compel the commissioners to favor a Community Bill of Rights that would in effect ban fracking in Johnson County.
“Assuming the “yes” vote prevails in March, there is no need for an oversight committee,” community organizer Natalie Long of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund said last week in an email to the Goreville Gazette. “If the will of the people in March is that the commissioners act to assert the community right to ban fracking, then the commissioners may do so promptly by enacting a Community Bill of Rights.”
On Monday, with more than double its regular attendance, the commissioners quickly dove into the discussion with residents who came prepared to oppose the creation of the committee. It was not long before clear frustrations rose between the two as each speaker maintained their ultimate goal was to protect the residents of Johnson County.
Those in attendance who had also participated in the collection of signatures for the March referendum said they felt as if the commissioners proposed the committee after they successfully filed their petition, perhaps looking to circumnavigate the will of the people. But notes from a Commissioner’s meeting on Nov. 18 disproved this claim as well as its outright denial by Commissioner Henshaw who said he took offense at such a suggestion. This point appeared to be at the heart of the contention between the two groups who for all intents and purposes were arguing for the same outcome, the protection of Johnson County and its residents from the burdens of hydraulic fracturing.
While the citizens’ group strongly opposes fracking due to their claim of it endangering the environment and health of people and would like to see its outright ban, the Commissioners said they have all of the county’s residents to serve and with nearly 200 land leases signed there is clear evidence of support for fracking in Johnson County.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting until after March to prepare for either outcome,” Henshaw said, adding that if the county bans fracking it would likely find itself in court defending the measure. “We need to be prepared for that as well, which is another reason why we’re looking at forming a committee to address all of these concerns.”
The commissioners approved the removal of the Fracking Oversight Committee from the following agenda choosing to return to the subject after further discussions with residents and officials alike could be had. The formation of the committee is still on the table and commissioners said it is not likely to go away.