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Letter provokes conflict of interest debate

A letter from Hancock County State’s Attorney Jim Drozdz sparked a debate about a possible conflict of interest by Hancock County board members Joe Stevenson and Tom Scheetz in their dealings with a windmill manufacturer.

Stevenson and Scheetz have each signed an option agreement with EcoEnergy, a windmill manufacturing company looking to develop a windmill farm in the county. The company plans to issue a site plan in the future which details who receives a windmill. The site plan must be approved by the county board.

Drozdz stated in his letter, dated June 20, he believed there was a conflict of interest by Scheetz and Stevenson when they voted on “matters related to windmill farms.” Those matters at the June 17 meeting were a vote to allow the Western Illinois Economic Development Authority (WIEDA) to begin the process of helping the county establish an enterprise zone. Another vote was taken approving Stevenson as the county board liaison with WIEDA.

“If true, and if these members stand to personally benefit from wind farms, then they had a conflict of interest,” states Drozdz’s letter.

The letter was addressed to board chairman David Walker. Copies were distributed at committee meetings after the board met June 17. The issue was placed on the agenda for the July 15 meeting.

Stevenson said he was disappointed that neither Walker, Drozdz, nor any board member had called him to voice concerns. He said he has not entered into any contract. He has signed an option that locks him into choosing EcoEnergy and no one else. The option allows him to change his mind and does not guarantee a windmill when EcoEnergy does its site plan.

“No one is guaranteed a windmill on their property,” said Stevenson.

Scheetz has a test tower on property owned by his wife. He has a three-year agreement with EcoEnergy for the tower before it is torn down. The tower gave EcoEnergy the information on wind speeds that caused them to go forward with the project.

Scheetz also has an option for a windmill. He said he has read the law and doesn’t think there is any conflict of interest.

“If you wrote the letter to keep me out of trouble, then I thank you,” said Scheetz to Drozdz. “I just don’t agree with it.”

Stevenson questioned the intentions of Drozdz in writing the letter three days after the June board meeting. He asked how Drozdz, who was not at the meeting, could have known what happened when the minutes weren’t done and the story hadn’t appeared in any newspaper as of June 20.

“Someone contacted you,” said Stevenson. “This is another shameless attempt to get an outcome someone wants.”

“I don’t have any hidden agenda, and I’m not here at the behest of any one board member,” said Drozdz. “I am here to protect you from doing anything that may be seen as improper.”

Board member Randy White took exception to Stevenson accusing Drozdz of wrongdoing.

“I brought him (Drozdz) here after watching criminals choose to come to this county because they knew they could walk all over our state’s attorney at the time. I’m offended that anyone would accuse our State’s Attorney of wrongdoing without any paperwork in front of us showing what he did.”

“That’s easy for you to say Randy,” said Stevenson. “It might be inferred that I am corrupt.”

Scheetz and Stevenson were involved in the wind power project before the county board became involved in any way.

Drozdz said he wrote the letter to caution the board about potential problems down the road by having Stevenson and Scheetz potentially benefitting from actions concerning the windmills.

In his letter, Drozdz suggested that to avoid “the mere appearance of impropriety,” three things needed to be done: 1) board members publicly disclose the nature and extent of their interest before or during deliberations; 2) abstain from voting on the issue; 3) recommended that the board member not participate in any related discussion on the matter unless it is a discussion open to the general public.

“In that event, the member, just like any other concerned citizen, could participate in the discussion,” states the letter.

Stevenson pointed out he gave an interview to the Journal-Pilot and was subsequently contacted by more media. He declined their requests for interviews. He said Walker had given TV interviews on the project. Scheetz has spoken on the radio about the project.

An informational meeting for interested property owners was held in November 2007. County board members were invited to it. Another informational meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 20, at the Hancock County Extension Center.

“Right now, this is an agreement between a landowner and a private business,” said Stevenson. “We kept the board informed on what we were doing as a courtesy.”

Stevenson produced his option check from April, saying he had not cashed it. Scheetz later said he had cashed option check.

“Based on what you’ve said tonight, there is a question of divided loyalty,” said Drozdz. “I think you clarified everything I said in the letter and made my case stronger.”

Stevenson said the enterprise zone isn’t limited to windmills. He said it is vital to the economic well-being of the county as a tool to reverse declining revenues.

“Our neighbors have enterprise zones,” he said. “We’re at a competitive disadvantage without one.”

He held up a copy of an area paper with a story about Adams County looking into windmills.

“It’s coming. These will be built somewhere,” said Stevenson. “At some point we’ll have a site plan. If I have one (windmill) sitting on my farm, you’ll be asked to approve it. Then we will recuse ourselves at that meeting. It still requires eight votes to pass.”

Stevenson said he was unaware that WIEDA required a liaison from the county board. Stevenson was nominated for the position and the board voted 8-6 with one absent approving him as the liaison at the June meeting.

Drozdz stated in his letter that the vote should be re-cast with Stevenson and Scheetz abstaining.

“If you don’t want it (enterprise zone) or me as the liason, then vote for it now,” said Stevenson.

Walker asked for a motion to reconsider the liaison vote. No one made the motion so the original vote stands.

Scheetz said after the meeting that he asked three board members between the June and July meetings to take over for Stevenson as the liaison. All three said no. Two of them had voted no on the liaison vote in June.

Stevenson said he was also unhappy with Drozdz giving the board more information than he was asked for.

“If I ask for an opinion, then give me your opinion,” said Stevenson. “If I ask for facts, then I want facts and not your opinion of those facts.”

“You’ll get my opinion and the facts,” said Drozdz. “I’ll give you what I think you need whether I’m asked to or not. I’m who you brought to the dance, and I’m who you’re going home with. You’re stuck with me.”

By Doug Endres, Staff writer

Hancock County Journal-Pilot

23 July 2008