Now that four rural Lenawee County townships are mired in a hot debate over wind turbines, some residents claim to be witnessing a collision between private property rights and the ethics of public office holders.
Recall efforts are under way in Ogden and Riga townships, with residents of nearby Fairfield and Palmyra townships watching.
Hundreds of wind turbines, many nearly 500 feet tall, are being contemplated for Lenawee County and its neighbor to the west, Hillsdale County. Several hundred more are being considered in Paulding, Van Wert, and Hardin counties in northwest Ohio. Some of them have already been erected.
In Ogden Township, petitions are being circulated against Supervisor James Goetz and Clerk Phyllis Gentz. Both are accused of having conflicts of interest for lease agreements they signed with would-be developers for unspecified payments if any turbines are erected on their farmland.
Both are voting members of Ogden Township’s five-member board.
Neither has recused himself or herself from casting votes on issues that will affect whether turbines are installed in Ogden Township.
In Riga Township, Supervisor Jefferee Simon has been accused of using his influence to keep Kevon Martis from being reappointed to the township’s planning commission after Mr. Martis grew suspicious of the wind industry.
Mr. Martis, now with the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition Inc., said he had been the commission’s vice chairman for six years.
Treasurer Richard Beagle, like the two voting members of the Ogden board who have been targeted for recall, is accused of putting himself in a position to gain financially by entering into a lease agreement for a turbine while continuing to vote on such matters.
A “clarity hearing” on the Riga Township recall effort is scheduled for Thursday morning in Lenawee County Probate Court before Judge Gregg Iddings.
“I don’t think it’s possible for them to be objective,” said Josh Van Camp, who is leading Ogden Township’s recall effort and is following those in nearby Riga Township.
Tony Pate, owner of Blissfield-based Hanem Construction, told The Blade he recently contacted Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office for an opinion.
He said he hadn’t heard back. A spokesman for that office said she was not aware of the request.
Mr. Pate said he would “like to imagine” there are limitations on what township officials can do with their land when they have the potential to reap benefits from it by the votes they cast.
“Otherwise, our elected officials could take cash from anyone they want and vote on whatever they want,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s some middle ground.”
But it’s unclear what – if any – middle ground exists.
Two years ago, a Huron County resident reported to then-Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox a similar issue evolving in Michigan’s Thumb region.
Mr. Cox replied in a Nov. 30, 2009, letter that local officials are accountable to voters and that any allegations of malfeasance should be taken to the county prosecutor’s office or to a private attorney.
S. Peter Manning, chief of the attorney general’s environment, natural resources, and agriculture division, also stated in an e-mail to a resident with the same last name that “this office is unable to advise you regarding your concerns.”
Michigan has a state ethics board, but it is limited to conduct of state employees and public officers of Michigan’s executive branch who are appointed by the governor or another executive department official.
Mr. Cox published a document for local units of government to use as a model for developing their own ethics ordinances in 2009, but the document states on its second page that such an ordinance is not required by state law.
Mr. Goetz feels he has done nothing wrong. He and Ms. Gentz, in fact, were part of last Monday’s 5-0 vote to place a six-month moratorium on turbine installation in Ogden Township, although proponents of it were hoping for at least a year.
He and Ms. Gentz also were on the losing end of a 3-2 vote to expand a citizens advisory committee investigating the viability of turbines in Ogden Township. Critics accused the two of them of trying to stack the panel with pro-wind voices.
“I had gotten phone calls and complaints that the citizens committee was unbalanced,” Mr. Goetz, 65, explained.
Wind developers approached him, long before the community became divided over the issue.
A longtime farmer, Mr. Goetz said he envisioned a wind turbine on his property being like a supplemental crop – something that would help sustain him through lean times, such as market fluctuations or drought.
“It’s just economics. It’s good business,” according to Mr. Goetz, who also has come under fire because – in addition to being township supervisor – he is the local property tax assessor for the state of Michigan.
Mr. Martis said it is hard to believe that land will be assessed fairly for those who oppose wind power by someone who may soon collect payments from the wind industry.
Ms. Gentz, 63, said the lease agreement she and her husband, Harry Gentz, also 63, signed was never about money.
She said she wanted to support renewable energy, something her husband has seen coming for years as a member of Midwest Energy Cooperative’s board of directors.
Ms. Gentz, who lives on a farm that has been in her family’s hands for 81 years, said she doesn’t like how the controversy has driven a wedge between community members.
“I hate to see friends and neighbors fighting each other. It’s awful,” she said. “I hope to see a peaceful resolution to this.”
The latest recall effort in Riga Township is a revised version of one filed Feb. 14 by resident William Frantz.
In that one, Mr. Simon and township clerk Karlene Goetz were targeted for removal from office on the grounds they had failed to provide adequate representation.
It was nullified at a Lenawee County Probate Court clarity hearing on March 3 on the grounds it was too vague. Mr. Frantz has since removed Ms. Goetz’s name and added Mr. Beagle’s.
Mr. Simon declined comment Friday.
Mr. Beagle could not be reached for comment.
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