Wayne Casler’s resignation as supervisor of the Herkimer County town of Litchfield should serve as a lesson for the larger community when it comes to public officials and conflicts of interest. But even more important, it once again demonstrates why adding another layer of government approval for wind turbine projects would be in the best interest of small communities.
Casler quit the town position he’s held for more than two decades after enduring months of criticism over his dual role as supervisor and regional controller for Barrett Paving Materials. Casler’s wife, Karen, also quit as the town’s appointed bookkeeper. Both resignations are effective at the end of the month.
Barrett Paving owns more than 100 acres on Dry Hill, the site where Albany-based NorthWind and Power wanted to build an eight- to 12-turbine wind farm. Here’s the rub: While NorthWind has said it isn’t interested in using Barrett’s land, the company could be selected to provide materials if the project is approved. Casler said that he’d recuse himself if a specific proposal from NorthWind came before the board – it hasn’t yet – but maintained that he’d continue to work on a proposed town law regulating wind farms.
Whoa. As an elected public official, Casler should have recused himself immediately from any kind of decision making on wind farms the moment the possibility arose that his company might stand to benefit from the project. That’s simply the right thing to do.
Here is where wind farm development becomes a thorny issue for smaller, rural communities. Due to their very nature, you’d be hard-pressed to find a region where there isn’t some kind of connection between the people who stand to benefit from a project and the public officials who’ll be asked to approve it. Only several months ago, the state Attorney General’s Office began investigating circumstances surrounding plans for a wind farm in Cape Vincent, where a number of officials or their relatives have agreements to lease land to the company building the turbines.
In such instances, is it possible for elected officials reviewing the projects to be impartial?
No. That’s why adding another layer of approval – either at the county or state level – should be encouraged. Not only would that be the right thing to do, but it would help small communities like Litchfield – where many neighbors have known each another all their lives – avoid the polarization such controversy creates.
But until a better system of review comes along, elected officials whose friends or family might in any way, shape or form benefit from such a project need to back off completely from the decision making the moment that possibility becomes known.
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