By Miranda S. Spivack
This article first ran on April 13, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.
KEVIN HEMSTOCK, THE LONGTIME editor of the Kent County News, took his paper’s watchdog role literally. From his office in downtown Chestertown, Maryland, he had a sweeping view of High Street, the main thoroughfare. One February day in 2010, he looked out his window, saw the three council members from the nearby town of Millington entering a lawyer’s office, and immediately sensed trouble. Why, he wondered, was the entire Millington Town Council arriving for what looked like a closed-door meeting in the middle of the day? Hemstock, who long ago had memorized the Maryland Open Meetings Act and regularly scanned the council’s schedule, knew the meeting had not been announced in advance and believed that it violated Maryland law.
Hemstock’s office sat only a few blocks from the Chester River, site of the annual reenactment of the 1774 Chestertown Tea Party, when local residents followed Boston’s lead and dumped tea into the river to press for free speech and protest taxation without representation. Hemstock is a history buff, proud to carry on the more than 300-year-old community’s tradition of standing up to government. So he didn’t hesitate to assign a story about the council gathering and had a reporter file a complaint on the newspaper’s behalf with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board. A year later, prodded by the complaint and the newspaper’s coverage, the compliance board ruled against Millington for convening in secret without prior notice to discuss what turned out to be leaky water pipes.
In Hemstock’s view, even though the plumbing issue hardly rose to the level of scandal, the compliance board’s ruling, and others sought by the weekly paper, put the community on notice: The Kent County News was watching. The paper not only covered the county fair and printed school-lunch menus, but also monitored the officials who hold the county’s purse strings and make decisions that can have major influence on people’s lives.
But what happens when the paper stops paying close attention? Kent County residents are finding out. More than three years ago, while the erstwhile watchdogs were otherwise occupied, Apex Clean Energy, an out-of-state company, moved in, quietly planning to build a massive wind farm with turbines as tall as the Washington Monument.
“Nobody knew anything about this,” says William Graham, who in March 2015 founded Keep Kent Scenic, an anti-turbine group that eventually, without much help from the local government and media, pieced the puzzle together. Were it not for the efforts of Graham and a handful of other activists—all volunteers learning on the job—residents might not have known about the Apex project until it was a done deal. The activists also discovered that, despite a county law that seemed to ensure that wind turbines could be no taller than 120 feet, the state could, if it wanted to, approve the project and simply override the local height limit.
After first agreeing to an interview with CJR, Apex officials canceled and declined to provide details of the company’s plans, leases, and timetable. Kevin Chandler, a company spokesperson, emailed a statement: “We always strive to provide accurate, up to date, digestible information to local stakeholders.”
ESTABLISHED IN 1793 in a community that has grown to include massive dairy farms, rolling fields of corn and soybeans, and watermen fishing for crabs—as well as elegant second homes for urbanites—the Kent County News has a long history as a community watchdog. During Hemstock’s 12 years as editor, he and his staff filed about a dozen complaints with the state compliance board alleging open meetings violations and wrote many stories about failures to adhere to Maryland’s open-government laws—far more than any nearby competitor, state records and newspaper archives show. “They hated us at the Open Meetings Compliance Board,” Hemstock says with a chuckle.
Many residents read the paper closely and took it seriously, according to several elected officials and community members. Hemstock left in 2012 after refusing to lay off staffers for a second time in three years. Instead, he says, “I laid myself off.”
For Kent County residents, the newspaper’s constant vigilance had paid off time and again, often affecting officials’ behavior and methods of governing. While larger media organizations stood by, the paper filed a complaint in 2012 protesting secret meetings held by the University of Maryland’s trustees to vote to join the Big Ten athletic conference—a multimillion-dollar move by the publicly funded university. The open-meetings board criticized the trustees, who promised to be more accountable to the public. Closer to home, the paper broke stories and filed complaints about the Kent County library board’s failure to keep accurate meeting minutes, to address one member’s chronic absenteeism, and to hold public sessions, all while it ran up a deficit of about $200,000. The seven board members were replaced.
From the 1970s to the early 2000s, the paper and several others also owned by Whitney Communications, which operated Chesapeake Publishing Corp., kept regular tabs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as it grew into a bedroom community for Annapolis; Baltimore; Wilmington and Newark, Delaware; and Washington, DC. In December 1983, as officials were signing a multi-state agreement to protect the Chesapeake Bay, Chesapeake Publishing produced a special section about the fragile future of the bay that helped spark a regional conversation about its condition. “We did some great journalism then,” says Chuck Lyons, president of the company during the Whitney era.
For several decades, the Kent County News and other papers in the chain closely tracked issues affecting the region. They monitored a plan to develop fragile waterfront property on the Eastern Shore, exposed illegal closed-door meetings of the state authority that monitors the finances of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and chronicled an attempt by Chestertown to annex a large swath of land for development that it could not legally acquire.
And now? Like so many papers around the country, the Kent County Newsand its sister papers, including the daily Easton Star-Democrat, are part of a larger chain. In 2007, Whitney Communications sold its Eastern Shore newspapers to American Consolidated Media, which in 2014 sold them to Adams Publishing Group. Already small staffs were cut—theKent County News now has four reporters and one editor, down from a staff of seven in 2009. Its journalists are expected, like so many others, to do more with less, filing short daily stories for the online edition while also meeting their weekly print deadlines. They’re rarely able to carve out time for in-depth investigations.
Since March 2012, when Hemstock was replaced by Daniel Divilio as editor, the paper has run few deeply reported accountability stories. Since early 2014, it has filed no complaints about closed government meetings, according to online newspaper archives and state records. Kent County residents and public officials say that reporters don’t make beat rounds or chat up community officials as often as they did in the past.
“We are a small paper with a small staff,” says Divilio, who has to cover many night meetings himself to ensure that the half-dozen or so communities and government agencies in the newspaper’s coverage area get a mention. Hemstock, who now runs an antiques and variety store in Millington and is an elected member of the town council, says the newspaper’s challenges spell trouble for places like Kent County. Local governments, he says, “think they can run amok.”
Other potential watchdogs are also absent. The Baltimore Sun, now part of the Tribune Publishing Company, closed its Eastern Shore bureau several years ago. The Washington Post, never particularly attentive to the Eastern Shore, is emphasizing national and international news under new owner Jeff Bezos.
Such information gaps are increasingly the rule, not the exception. As news organizations shrink and shrink some more, a community’s problems may go unreported, sometimes festering into crises. As regional papers suffer, state and local muck gets raked less and less. When not tracked closely, issues such as the work of Michigan’s proliferating emergency managers can devolve into catastrophes like thelead-tainted water poisoning children in Flint.
Surveys conducted in 2009, 2011, and 2013 by the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), the Media Law Resource Center, and in 2015, aided by Investigative Reporters and Editors concluded that the downsizing and decline of local media play a key role in enabling state and local government secrecy. The surveys found that there are fewer news organizations holding state and local institutions accountable and that in many parts of the country, media watchdogs that do exist have grown quieter. “The traditional media, particularly newspapers, have always led the open-government charges if the school board is closing a meeting illegally or the city is denying records or a judge is kicking a reporter out,” says Jeffrey Hunt, a prominent media lawyer in Utah. “I just see the media leaving the field in terms of fighting these battles.”
As media scrutiny has waned, some governments have taken notice and, says Hunt, “become more aggressive in terms of secrecy and withholding information from the public.” Document retrievals take longer and requestors must pay more. Legislatures and courts are limiting access to text messages, police videos, complaints against corporations, gun permits, even the names of licensed pet owners. After 9/11, many states decided that just about any piece of information that might be linked to public safety could be exempted from disclosure. While such concerns can be valid, withholding information about, say, the condition of essential infrastructure like bridges, railroads, and highways can make it tougher for the media and the public to evaluate whether government is properly enforcing its regulations and laws and keeping residents safe.
The 2013 National Freedom of Information Coalition survey contained some other troubling data: a perception by the lawyers and journalists surveyed that “there is a greater inclination among government officials for gaming the system than complying with existing disclosure and accountability laws.” Last year’s survey echoed that finding.
FOR JOURNALISTS AND NON-JOURNALISTS ALIKE, it takes some digging to learn details about a business proposal, a neighbor’s construction plan, or an official’s calendar or meeting logs. To find out who has recently met with Kent County’s planning commission, for instance, requires going in person to the county government building in downtown Chestertown and requesting and reading visitors’ logs, which aren’t always complete and don’t often reveal details of what was discussed.
With about 20,000 residents, Kent County is the kind of place where people often bump into one another at the weekly farmers’ market in Chestertown or at one of many local music, art, and theater events. But when there’s a vacuum in news coverage and governments aren’t particularly communicative, the local grapevine can fail. Meetings happen, officials make decisions, and the public can find itself in the dark.
Kennedyville, where the wind turbines were slated to be built, is about eight miles north of Chestertown. Fields of soy, corn, and other grain crops flow like an ocean of green across miles and miles of undeveloped property. Like much of Kent County’s 414 square miles, Kennedyville is made up of small settlements with a few houses backed by hundreds of acres of farmland dotted with gray barns. “There is a sense of place around here,” says Joe Hickman, a farm manager, planning commissioner, and environmental activist who grew up in the county. “It’s a special place to farm owners.”
In 2006, after two years of debate among county officials and residents, the three-person county commission approved a master plan that preserved agricultural land. In 2011, following the recommendations of a county renewable-energy task force, the commissioners approved the 120-foot height limit for wind turbines as a way to deter commercial wind farms. “There does not appear to be sufficient wind in this area to justify utility scale wind farms,” the task force found, “and for this and other reasons, the task force determined that utility scale wind energy is neither a feasible nor desirable use for Kent County.”
The Kent County News didn’t publish its first story about Apex’s wind-energy plans until March 2014—nearly two years after its representatives first began traversing the county, appearing on farmers’ doorsteps, and offering leases that by some estimates were worth about $30,000 a year in exchange for the opportunity to install 35 to 50 wind turbines, and possibly more, each about 500 feet tall. The News’ single-source story, which quoted Tyson Utt, a director of development at Apex, was written by editor Daniel Divilio, who says that it came about after Apex officials contacted the paper seeking publicity.
Divilio’s article described a “new type of farm.” Although it said that wind-turbine heights “could be 500 feet tall,” it didn’t mention that local law forbids turbines taller than 120 feet. Nor did it note that the county’s own renewable energy task force had found in 2010 that the county wasn’t a very windy place.
Most critically, it failed to report that the county’s carefully hashed-out, seemingly airtight zoning laws had left a hidden, gaping loophole. As Apex knew, the local law banning turbines taller than 120 feet would be moot if the company lined up enough leases to generate a steady 70 megawatts of power. That was the tipping point that would allow the company to bypass local control and go to the state regulator, the Maryland Public Utilities Commission, which was under pressure from then-governor (and sometime presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley to approve clean-energy projects. (O’Malley’s Republican successor, Larry Hogan, hasn’t been as vocal about clean energy but recently signed a bill approving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.) The county government, emails show, had even agreed to help Apex keep its plans quiet, at one point offering to allow the company to brief county officials at a closed-door meeting—a meeting that Apex eventually cancelled.
Even though it was missing key details, Graham recalls reading Divilio’s article “with horror. Why would anyone want to do that here?”
Still, there was little follow-up. The Kent County News didn’t publish another piece about Apex until a year later, and there was no media coverage elsewhere, according to online archives and Kent County residents. What types of activities went unreported? Mostly public meetings, of the sort that Hemstock was so persnickety about.
In May 2014, for instance, at a regularly scheduled gathering of the planning commission, two county planning officials briefly discussed the wind farm, according to meeting minutes. Amy Moredock, the county’s top planning official, says this exchange marked the first public airing of the turbine issue by anyone in government. The minutes offer little detail, but they do mention Apex’s decision to forgo a hearing with the planning commission and instead “explore another avenue to get their project up and running.”
That other avenue wasn’t described, but it could have been the basis of an important news story if anyone in county government or local media had tuned in. Instead, an entire additional year passed before Graham and Keep Kent Scenic came to understand that Apex was trying to bypass local control.
On May 7, 2014, six days after the first public discussion of Apex’s proposal at the county planning commission that no news organizations covered, the county’s Economic Development Advisory Board heard Apex officials outline the scope of the project, according to meeting minutes. Again, there was no news coverage. County records show that no agenda was published in advance (nor is one required by law in Maryland) and no community members dropped by to hear the presentation. The advisory board’s meeting minutes, which, unlike those of the county commissioners, were not posted on the county website, show no suggestion of any talk of local ordinances that ban wind turbines taller than 120 feet. They also mention nothing about Apex’s intention to bypass county officials entirely and seek approval from the state.
“Everywhere the wind turbine companies go, they really follow the same procedure,” says Paul Crowe, who helped lead a successful fight against a wind farm in North East, Pennsylvania. “They go into an area, very often a small town, and work very, very closely with individual residents to sign up for turbines, promising they will make lots of money. They try to get things moving before anyone really knows what is happening. They expect to run into a combination of no knowledge, lack of opposition, local officials uninformed.”
Crowe’s efforts have turned him into not just an activist but a journalist. As the Erie Times-News, the local paper of record, has endured cutbacks, Crowe has started his own fledgling news site, North East PA Online, which has been prodding local officials to take steps like posting agendas ahead of their meetings.
In Chestertown, as Bill Graham of Keep Kent Scenic investigated Apex’s efforts to secure permission for its wind farm, he, too, evolved into a quasi-professional reporter. A former nuclear engineer and steady reader of the Kent County News, The Baltimore Sun, and more recentlyThe Chestertown Spy, a two-person website started by a former nonprofit executive in 2009, Graham initially had no idea where to start. He wasn’t learning much from the local government and had not been aware of the recent public discussions at the two county committees. He says the planning commission and the county commissioner’s office told him there was nothing to announce or discuss since there was no application from the company. It wasn’t until 2015 that he and another resident learned they could find publicly available land records—to see who was signing leases—at the red-brick county courthouse in Chestertown.
Scanning the internet, Graham connected with Tammy Truitt, a chicken farmer in nearby Somerset County who had also fought plans for a wind farm and who told him there might be a filing with the Federal Aviation Administration about Apex’s proposed wind farm. Graham found that document, which gave a better sense of the scope and specifics of the Apex project, including a tentative map that showed where the company wanted to place the wind turbines. He also learned that the path of the proposed turbines would have to be assessed by the US Fish and Wildlife Administration to see if it would result in an excessive number of bird kills. The Eastern Shore is a major route on the north-south flyway for migratory birds.
In late February 2015, Apex representatives hosted an invitation-only dinner at a vacant hardware store in Galena, a small farming community northeast of Chestertown, gathering about 35 local landowners to listen to the company’s pitch about leases and turbines, according to people who attended. It was catered by Molly’s, a local restaurant, and featured wine from nearby Crow Farms, owned by former County Commissioner Roy Crow and his wife, Judy, who had been approached by Apex as possible turbine hosts.
County Commissioner Billy Short, whose family has lived in the county for three generations, says that at the dinner he pressed Apex officials to explain how they were going to win approval of their project given that it contravened the county’s master plan. “They hemmed and hawed and said, ‘We will talk about that later,’ ” says Short, whose day job is running a window-treatment business. He kept pressing. Finally, he says, “they admitted that once they got to a 70-megawatt system, they would bypass us and go straight to the state public service commission.” That did it for Short. “My takeaway was that our authority and zoning regs did not mean anything to them,” he says. But he didn’t make his misgivings known to the larger community at that time.
A day or so after the Apex dinner, Graham, who hadn’t been invited but who learned of it at the last minute and dropped in after it started, aired his concerns in a letter to The Chestertown Spy. He wrote about the height of the proposed turbines, the risk to birds on the migratory flyway, potential noise, and the disruption of the county’s scenic landscape. He says he had sent the letter two weeks earlier to the Kent County News but was told it couldn’t be published because it exceeded the customary length.
Janet Lewis, an artist and organic farmer, read Graham’s letter in The Chestertown Spy and got in touch with him. Together the two began to delve more deeply into the procedures for wind-farm approvals and decided to form Keep Kent Scenic, which quickly won support from dozens of residents who volunteered to help. “I have never done anything like this before,” says Lewis, who has since become an expert at researching land records and scouring other documents the group obtained through public information requests. She, Graham, and other members of Keep Kent Scenic finally learned about the Maryland Public Service Commission’s power to override local regulations by reading documents on the commission’s website and speaking with people like Truitt in other communities that already were fighting wind farms.
Graham and Lewis realized time was not on their side. They decided that they needed to publicize their findings and organized a community meeting at the Kent County Public Library on March 21, 2015. The Kent County News advanced it in a brief story, then afterward reported on the proceedings and the “standing-room-only” crowd, which Graham estimated at 200 people. Although the story did not include a detailed explanation of the county’s potential loss of veto power, it did allude to the commissioners’ desire to “ensure local authority over the approval” and their concerns “that Apex may be trying to work around the county’s zoning and planning process.”
As opposition grew, it generated more stories, in both the News and The Chestertown Spy. Local elected officials began voicing disapproval. With negative publicity building, Apex officials offered the newspaper an email Q&A, which was conducted by Divilio and published on April 2, 2015. Answers from Apex made it sound as if the state were forcing it to bypass local regulations.
Around the same time, Steve Hershey, a Republican state senator, tried to get a bill through the state legislature to keep veto power in the county. The bill died in committee, but the debate over the measure drew news coverage in the Kent County News and the Easton Star-Democrat.
“This fight,” observes Wayne Gilchrest, a former congressman and a moderate Republican, “has brought together some of the most liberal members of the community who would vote for Obama for a third term and the more conservative in the county, who still think Obama was born in Kenya.”
In June 2015, Keep Kent Scenic organized a second standing-room-only meeting, this one in the Kennedyville firehouse. Several speakers, including Truitt and a lawyer from the state Public Service Commission, explained the approval process in detail. Lewis and Graham spent much of the time signing up supporters. As county officials made their opposition plain, they drew loud applause.
Still, the Kent County News reported that the community was likely to be outflanked by Apex, noting that most of the hearings would be held in Baltimore, 50 miles away, and that the activists might need to hire a lawyer. “Opponents of wind turbines in Kent County are in for a protracted battle that will be expensive and difficult to win,” reporter Trish McGee wrote.
The turbine opponents kept working through last summer and fall to publicize their views, posting large signs around the county and gathering signatures every Saturday at the Chestertown farmers’ market. They also spoke with state legislators about passing a bill that would allow the community to retain control of alternative-energy projects.
Then, toward the end of the year, the winds suddenly shifted. In December, Apex announced that it was putting the turbines on hold and had instead filed an application with the Maryland Public Service Commission to build a 330-acre, 60-megawatt solar facility. Seeming to learn from the work of the anti-turbine activists, the Kent County News’ coverage pointed out that, as with the wind project, Apex’s solar plans were not required to comply with county code. Written by Divilio, the article went on to quote Graham, who had met with Apex officials about the new proposal and declared himself “just delighted.”
But Graham says he has to continue to keep a close watch, citing unresolved issues like the possibility that Apex could sell the already-signed leases for wind turbines to another developer “who isn’t weary of fighting us.” He was also concerned, at the time of the company’s December announcement, that Apex might disregard the county’s solar regulations. “We’re not popping Champagne corks,” he told Divilio.
Although Graham plans to stay involved, he has handed over the reins of Keep Kent Scenic to Lewis, the artist and organic farmer who co-founded the group. “I want my life back,” he says.
Lewis and others in the community are closely watching the solar project. The Kent County commissioners recently intervened at the Maryland Public Service Commission to oppose a recent request by Apex to plant more solar panels than county law allows, exactly the kind of move Graham feared back in December. This time, however, the county government has joined the fight much earlier, well-schooled about Apex’s penchant for trying to bypass local authority. For that, it has a group of community activists, not a newspaper, to thank.
Miranda S. Spivack is a freelance writer specializing in stories about government accountability and a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @mirandareporter. This story was supported by grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and Marquette University’s O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism.