A member of an advocacy group critical of relationships between Somerset County leaders and stakeholders in a proposed wind farm also has family ties to the project.
The sister of Safe For Somerset active member Tammy Truitt is married to Horace “Juke” Marshall who is signed on to lease land to Pioneer Green energy to house a wind turbine, Truitt acknowledged when asked about the relationship.
Safe For Somerset has openly criticized Pioneer Green’s proposed wind farm of an estimated 25 turbines across farmland between Westover and Marion Station. Last week, the group distributed the names of elected or appointed officials with family or business ties with county residents expected to benefit financially through lease agreements that offer farmland for Pioneer Green turbines.
The advocacy group wants the Somerset County Ethics Commission to conduct an ethics review of county elected or appointed officials with ties and ruling regarding a potential conflict of interest.
County Commissioners are expected to vote whether to adopt a measure recommended by the county Planning and Zoning Commission that would create an industrial wind provision for the county’s zoning ordinance. Approval of the provision is a major step toward allowing energy firms as Pioneer Green to move forward.
Safe For Somerset’s report on officials with connections with leaseholders was released at a news conference last week, although the documents did not include that Truitt is sister-in-law to Marshall, who is married to her sister, Quinna.
Safe For Somerset member E.J. Monheiser justified the omission of Truitt’s relationship with a leaseholder, saying that as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Truitt was forthcoming with evidence of potential problems with turbines.
“If she was for turbines, in same kettle of fish as Anderson and Carson are in, she definitely would have been on the list we put out,” Monheiser said.
Truitt was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Planning and Zoning Commission in late 2012, and served until the term expired near the end of 2014. During her tenure, she voted with the panel on specific wind provision measures, such as sound decibel levels and setback requirements. Truitt’s term expired days before the Planning and Zoning Commission voted to approve the package of measures that make up the proposed industrial wind provision.
Truitt said she was unaware her brother-in-law was a leaseholder when she first joined the planning board. “I learned about it in 2013, about six months later, and realized he had a lease contract.”
When she learned about the family tie, Truitt said she considered it “her duty” to be an opposing voice on a panel she claimed has members that ignored evidence in an attempt to shade potential safety or other concerns with turbines.
“I never hid that fact” about family ties to a leaseholder, Truitt said Saturday. “I did my job as a planning and zoning member, to protect citizens and their property. That is the function of the Planning and Zoning board.”
Somerset Commissioners Rex Simpkins and Jerry Boston are at the top of the Safe For Somerset chart that links them through immediate family to residents listed as having lease agreements. Also named are Planning and Zoning Commission members Pat Carson and Kevin Anderson; and Kirk Simpkins, who is the attorney for Somerset County and legal representative for some turbine leaseholders, including his father-in-law.
Rex Simpkins dismissed the notion that his discussions on the wind issue pose a conflict of interest. At issue is that his brother, Kirk, is husband to the daughter of Scott Tawes, who with others has leased separate small parcels for turbines south of Fairmount Road in Westover.
“I certainly don’t have relatives that have anything to do with the windmill project,” Rex Simpkins said in an interview. “They claim that my sister-in-law’s father is a potential lessee.” Tawes “is not related to me.”
Simpkins also said he publicly favored killing the measure, believing it was unrealistic to expect that cautious overseers of military radar testing would give a green light to industrial turbines in the testing path.
“If anybody holds the ethical high ground, it would be me,” Simpkins said. “I wanted to kill the project; maybe I need to rethink my position on this.”
Last fall, County Commissioner Charles Fisher motioned to kill the wind turbine measure, but “it didn’t get a second,” Rex Simpkins recalled. Simpkins then voted with Fisher against tabling, or delaying the measure, while Commissioners Randy Laird and Craig Mathias voted to table it. Boston abstained, and the 2-2 tie kept the wind measure alive.
Boston, whose daughter is married to prospective leaseholder Douglas Reynolds, said his attorney advised him to abstain from voting on wind turbine measures until the ethics issue is resolved.
He called Safe For Somerset’s public naming of his daughter distasteful.
“It bothers me that they bring my child into this,” Boston said in a Saturday interview. He also noted that a Safe For Somerset map of proposed turbine locations don’t include land owned by Reynolds.
“They are grasping at straws,” Boston said. “If you go back far enough, somebody is related to somebody. I do not think that a son-in-law is an ethics violation. There’s no personal gain for me as a county commissioner. I’m looking at gains for the county.”
Truitt failed to win reappointment to the planning board, and Simpkins said perhaps County Commissioners, who approve board members, did her a favor.
“By not reappointing her, we possibly protected her from any ethics violation,” Simpkins said. “We possibly protected her from her own complaint.”
Safe For Somerset wants the county to delay a decision on the wind provision until the ethics issue is resolved. The group said the delay also would allow more time to study potential effects on health and safety, property values and the environment.
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