Turbine policy at center of petition and debate
CHILTON – A recall election is set Tuesday, and its target says it’s a referendum on wind turbines in Calumet County, not – as recall petitioners insist – on his ethical conduct in office.
“It’s wind,” said Calumet County Board Supv. Jerry Criter. “It’s just about wind.”
Criter, 71, is a farmer who has represented District 16 since 2002. The district, which includes all or parts of the towns of Chilton, Stockbridge and Brothertown, is the epicenter of a bitter dispute over plans to develop industrial wind farms in Calumet County, where winds routinely clock 13 mph.
Criter is one of the property owners who would like to put 400-foot wind turbines on his land. If they were buildings, the proposed turbines would stand about 30 stories tall. Developers expect to pay landlords about $8,000 per turbine.
His opponent is political newcomer Ralph Prescott, 53, who lives in the Town of Brothertown and works as a retail consultant.
“The accountability question just hangs out there for me,” said Prescott, whose family sold its small chain of grocery stores in 2003.
The recall’s instigators, who collected 261 signatures to force the special election, admit they’re worried about how the turbines will affect life in Calumet County. But the reasons they give for recalling Criter include a vote he cast in July, which amended a county ordinance to include guidelines for the test towers that measure wind speeds.
The petitioners, who call themselves Citizens for Responsible Government Calumet County, contend Criter violated the state’s ethics code, which prohibits elected officials from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest.
An exception, however, permits public officials to vote on amendments to existing ordinances. In October, Calumet County Dist. Atty. Ken Kratz investigated allegations that Criter’s vote was illegal and concluded it was within the law.
“There are a few people who cannot accept the district attorney’s ruling and have decided a recall election would get me out of office,” Criter said. “I’m really surprised and disappointed it got this far.”
The petitioners, whose attorney thinks Kratz erred, say a recall was their only recourse, and that removing Criter from office couldn’t wait until either the regularly scheduled Feb. 19 primary election or the April 1 general election.
A vote Criter cast in October, denying a special study committee $5,000 for a field trip to a wind farm, further incited the group.
Criter says the expense was unnecessary since an advocacy group was offering an all-expenses-paid trip the following week to a wind farm in Illinois. Kratz said he wasn’t asked to look into that vote and absent an investigation declined to comment on its legality.
“We had been hearing reports about Mr. Criter voting on all these issues, but yet on the other hand, being an advocate for wind turbines actually approaching farmers and land owners trying to get them involved in this,” said Lee Bjork, the petitioners’ spokesman.
“I lost a lot of faith in what was going on and there didn’t seem to be any compunction from him to stop doing one or the other. I thought recall was our last hope of trying to get some normalcy here. It didn’t seem right.”
Prescott’s wife encouraged him to challenge Criter.
“I followed the Milwaukee County Board recall and all the while I was thinking how unfair it was what they’d been doing and that they didn’t deserve to hold the position,” Prescott said.
In 2001, petitioners in Milwaukee County residents forced the resignation or recall of eight county officials over a multi-million dollar pension plan for county employees.
“When this came up, my wife said, ‘You talk about this all the time. You ought to think about doing something about it.'”
It pains Criter to be cast in the same light as the disgraced Milwaukee County officials. He fails to see how either a vote on locating test towers or going on a field trip would benefit him financially.
“It’s just not right what they’re doing,” he said. This is the first time he’s had to defend his office against a challenger. “I’ve never had any opposition until this issue. Do you recall somebody over one issue instead of 50 or 60 over the last six years?”
Wind farms have spawned dozens of lawsuits in Wisconsin, but few recall attempts. In 2006 three members of the Ridgeville Town Board barely survived a recall over wind farms in Monroe County. An earlier recall in the Dodge County Town of Herman also failed.
Criter doesn’t know what the petitioners hope to gain by removing him.
The state allows local governments little authority to regulate wind farms.
Proposed changes that would toughen county’s ordinance already have the developers talking about enlarging the farms they plan to locate in Calumet County. If they do, they can bypass the county altogether and take their case to the state Public Service Commission.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Criter says.
Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s election, it may be temporary.
Both Criter’s and Prescott’s names appear on the April 1 ballot. Potentially, Criter could lose his seat Tuesday and win it back in the regular election.
Likewise, Prescott could defeat Criter in the recall, then, after a month in office, lose the seat to Criter in the regular election.
About this issue
In September, Calumet County imposed a moratorium on applications and permits for wind farms in light of debate over developers’ proposals for two large wind farms, composed of 400-foot-tall turbines, in the county, which is one of the state’s most promising sites for wind energy. A committee was created to study the concerns of dozens of residents who have expressed worry about how noise and vibration would affect adjoining property owners. Last month, the County Board extended the ban until March 26. The committee, now disbanded, proposed numerous changes, including increasing the distance between turbines and houses, schools, hospitals and other structures from 1,000 feet to 1,800. The proposals remain unresolved.
By Susan Squires
10 February 2008
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