Forum on SWEPCO proposal draws vocal crowd
EUREKA SPRINGS -- A vocal, sometimes angry crowd of opponents to Southwestern Electric Power Co.'s plans to run a high-voltage power line through Carroll County turned out for a public forum hosted by a pair of state legislators on Thursday, June 26.
State Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest) and State Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), who hosted the event at the Inn of the Ozarks Convention Center, said they plan to introduce a pair of bills in next year's legislative session that would make it more difficult for utility companies to complete projects such as the one proposed by SWEPCO.
One bill would address the state's eminent domain law and make it more difficult for utilities such as SWEPCO to acquire private land through eminent domain. The other would establish an Office of Public Counsel that could assist landowners who might be affected by such proposals.
The grass-roots battle by a local group named Save the Ozarks to stop SWEPCO's plans has been ongoing for more than a year. Opponents of the power line scored a victory recently when the Arkansas Public Service Commission announced June 9 that it will hold a rehearing to determine whether the power line is needed and which one of several routes proposed by SWEPCO is most viable. An administrative law judge with the commission had issued a ruling in January approving one of the routes proposed by SWEPCO, but both sides appealed the issue, prompting the commission's June 9 decision.
At Thursday's meeting, Save the Ozarks director Pat Costner said the group has raised and spent $150,000 in its bid to halt SWEPCO's plans. Much of that money has gone to pay attorneys and expert witnesses, she said.
"We may have to raise another $150,000," Costner said. "I don't think so. I hope not. But that's potentially what we face. But we will not stop!"
King and Ballinger came under sometimes heavy criticism from residents who attended Thursday's meeting, both for accepting campaign contributions from SWEPCO and for what some audience members described as their slowness to take action on the issue.
"We need you to stand up right now and tell them no," said Mickey Schneider, a member of the Eureka Springs City Council who was one of several audience members who spoke at the meeting.
Both King and Ballinger acknowledged receiving campaign donations from SWEPCO in the past. Both publicly stated their opposition to SWEPCO's plans at Thursday's meeting.
"SWEPCO has given me campaign contributions in the past, and you know what I did this year?" King said. "I said no."
Ballinger said he had received one campaign contribution from SWEPCO.
"I want to be above reproach by my constituents," said Ballinger, an attorney who was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2012. "The only contribution I ever got from SWEPCO was $350, and that was when I first got elected."
Ballinger also apologized for not taking a more vocal stance against the proposed power line.
"It may be true that I should have been a whole lot louder a whole lot earlier," he said. "I haven't been as involved as I should have been, and I apologize for that. I hope you all will forgive me for that. Am I against this? Yes, I am."
Doug Stowe of Save the Ozarks said much of the difficulty that the group has encountered in its bid to stop SWEPCO from constructing the high-voltage line stems from the autonomy of the APSC.
"Part of the reason we're in this position is because we have a Public Service Commission that doesn't follow state law," Stowe said. "Our fundamental problem here is that the Public Service Commission is in effect a forest unto itself. It makes up its own rules for practice and procedure. ... Some oversight and legislative control needs to be exercised on the Public Service Commission."
Approximately 200 people attended the forum. Ballinger praised residents for their efforts.
"If there is an answer, it's public involvement and you all have done a phenomenal job of demonstrating that," he said.