“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both."President James Madison

The venerable 20th-century newspaperman from the city of my arrival, H.L. (Henry Louis, if you please) Mencken once said that a newspaperman's task is not to be a pal of those public officials on whom he may be compensated to report. If that's accurate, I've had nary a problem in more than 30 consecutive years in the Fifth Estate. (Er, Fourth Estate. Hiccup.)

Through the years, I've offered what I believe to be the occasional fair and rational criticism of local, state and national elected and appointed public officials. I've also offered plenty of praise for them when it's deserved and when I haven't been otherwise occupied.

A considerable – and hopefully well – gathering of local citizens arrived for a May 4 meeting in Lynchburg related to solar "farms," the primary focus of which appeared to be to criticize public officials from here to Columbus. That comes with the salaries and bennies, of course. But it does not come with exceptions to reverse criticism when some accuse those in office of being less than accommodating with information.

When at least one citizen asked why Highland County commissioners didn’t notify the public about the solar projects if they were aware of plans “six months to a year” before the rest of the community, I realized, once again, that willful ignorance can be a choice – especially in the Information Age in which we live.

As noted by commissioners, their meetings are reported on weekly in local media, including in The Highland County Press and online at highlandcountypress.com. Moreover, their weekly meetings at 9 a.m. Wednesdays in the Highland County Administration Building are open to the public.

Typically, commission meeting attendance is very low. In attendance will be the Three Wise Men (apologies to the current board, but I have been calling county commissioners, collectively, by this handle for 20 years with a rare exception or two – Harriet Fenner having been the most recent woman to serve on the commission decades ago), a commission clerk, usually two newspaper reporters, auditor Bill Fawley, any organization up for its annual proclamation, and well, that's about it.

When the Highland County TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party was in its heyday 10 or 12 years ago, the Wednesday meetings actually had an audience. But no more.

So, to those who suggest that news of the solar farms covering land (and "green space," gotta love the irony there) around Highland County, has been a well-kept secret by state and local public officials, the sun just won't shine on your back door.

An easy search of "solar farms" on our website alone generates hundreds of results, including this from the Feb. 15, 2017 meeting of the Highland County Board of Commissioners:

Commissioner Jeff Duncan said that at a recent meeting with the Highland County Farm Bureau and the Brown County Farm Bureau, an issue of solar power technology installations was raised.

According to the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, solar power technology has grown considerably over the past few years, and landowners are increasingly being approached about leasing part of their property for solar-powered projects. The size of the proposed projects ranges from 60 acres to 800 acres, according to Dale Arnold, Ohio Farm Bureau’s director of energy, utility and local government policy. Duncan said the local Farm Bureau representatives are advising landowners to seek counsel prior to signing any contracts for solar-power installations.

"We're heard that 63 to 68 percent of these contracts are signed on the hood of a pickup truck," then-Commission President (and now state representative) Shane Wilkin said.

From 2016 – five years ago – the OFBF advised that several things should be considered before leasing land for these solar projects:

• Research the company. Does the company have experience with long-term development, construction and operation of the facility, or is this lease package being created for speculative purposes?

• Contract vs. regulatory issues – Some program provisions are determined in your negotiated lease; others are a matter of state and federal regulations. Know exactly what provisions you can control and negotiate.

• How long will the project be on your property?

• What are the tax ramifications? How will this affect your Current Agricultural Use Value (CAUV)?

• Who pays the cost of dismantling the solar project and returning the land to its original condition at the end of a lease? What happens if the company goes bankrupt?

For more information, contact your local Farm Bureau or go to https://ofbf.org/2016/10/24/ask-questions-signing-solar-lease/.

In other words, the commissioners – and others, like the Farm Bureau – have been advising the community about the local solar farm proliferation for years. So has this newspaper.

Moreover, at a Jan. 12, 2011 commission meeting, Highland County Farm Bureau representatives Steve Dillon, Heather Utter and Jim Faust provided an update on the bureau’s local policies for then-commissioners Jeremy Shaffer, Shane Wilkin and Tom Horst.

As The Highland County Press reported (see https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/Headlines/Article/Farm-Bureau-county-commission-review-policies/2/73/6480?s=1), the commissioners received the following Farm Bureau policies: Adopted Policies: 2010-11. Included in those policies were these two items:

5. Rural Development and Land Use – a) We support education and involvement of farmers and non-farmers in land use issues through the Comprehensive Plan and other land use tools to ensure environmentally sound development and to maintain farmland; b) Discourage large scattered development throughout open farmland areas and encourage the preservation of large contiguous blocks of prime farmland and open space; c) Encourage multiple use driveways and regulatory distance for mailboxes along road to assure adequate space for farm machinery trucks, etc; d) We support a driveway site approval system and adoption of the county access management plan; e) We encourage county and township officials to pursue rural zoning to ensure environmentally sound development and to maintain farmland and open space. f) We encourage the development of a committee from the community at large to pursue a countywide zoning commission to protect the personal property rights of various land uses; and this, from item 14 – Renewable FuelsWe support the use and implementation of alternative energies such as solar and wind in our community.

There you have it. Local public officials have been discussing solar energy and countywide zoning for more than a decade. Until the May 4 Lynchburg meeting, there has been relatively little pushback against land owners selling or leasing to the solar companies. Maybe it took something like the Mobley Road eyesore in Green Township (Brown County) to shine sufficient light on the issue.

More than two years ago, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio posted the minutes to a March 2019 public hearing in Mowrystown. There was interesting discussion – both pro and con – at that meeting regarding the proposed solar energy farm in southwest Highland County in Clay and Whiteoak townships. Property owners provided a background on the project. Several area residents also spoke about the project and its potential impact on the local schools and the environment. It's worth reviewing. A PDF file is available at: http://dis.puc.state.oh.us/DocumentRecord.aspx?DocID=8c56f96a-2fef-4cc1-8997-37b8f9c058fc.

For those who plead ignorance of the solar farms or blame public officials or the local media for not adequately informing you, well, that's on you. As Mencken famously said, maybe some folks' problem boils down to this: "It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place."

Mencken was a cynical sort.

Every spring, we mention Sunshine Week, which was established in 2005 to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and a major architect of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison and others championed the First Amendment to prevent the kind of tyranny colonists faced from King George III who prevented newspapers critical of him from publishing during the American Revolution.

Madison said: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

At the May 4 meeting in Lynchburg, Highland County Commissioner (and former Ohio senator and representative) David Daniels said citizens’ input "actually matters" more to the Ohio Power Siting Board, with the information they share in written comments or during the public hearings.

“Nobody has got a better story than you do,” Daniels told the crowd. “You’re the ones affected by this. Your story will matter more than ours. We’ve got residents that aren’t affected, we’ve got residents that are affected. If we intervene on your behalf, we’re working against the people that actually want the solar projects, and there are people in the county [that do].”

Citizens' participation and engagement in their own government are perhaps the greatest ammunition against secrecy. One way to do that is for everyday people to take up the cause. Otherwise, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, we get the government we deserve.

On May 4, citizens did take up the cause. That's encouraging. But let's not forget the fact that public officials and the local media have tried to inform and enlighten along the way.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.