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West Michigan officials facing recall election over controversial wind farm project

MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI – Two Casnovia Township officials are facing a recall election next month over their voting records on a controversial wind farm project that divided township residents and their elected officials for over a year.

After residents filed a petition for their recall, Casnovia Township Clerk Jennie Powell and Trustee Daniel Winell, both Republicans, will be vying to keep their positions for the next seven months when voters cast ballots in the May 5 election.

Voters, casting primarily absentee ballots, will decide whether to elect them, or challengers Carrie Schuman, who is seeking the clerk’s position, and Steven Sower Jr., who is running for Winell’s trustee seat. Both challengers are running as nonpartisan candidates.

The controversial wind farm project sparked division within the township over a litany of complaints by residents. During 2018-19, Casnovia residents expressed concern to officials that the project would produce excessive noise and could create hazards for local wildlife.

The proposed wind farm, dubbed the Kenowa Ridge Wind Farm Project, would have built 31 wind turbines across portions of Casnovia Township in Muskegon County and Tyrone Township in Kent County. It was first proposed in 2018 and would have been completed this year.

After township officials approved a special use permit for the project in August 2019, residents filed a lawsuit in Muskegon County Circuit Court against Casnovia Township, claiming that ongoing health issues could be negatively impacted or exacerbated if the wind farm was erected.

A second lawsuit was filed last year against the township by American Electric Power, the project’s developer, who claimed the conditions of the special use permit were “capricious and arbitrary.”

AEP has since dropped the lawsuit and decided not to move forward with the wind farm project, Casnovia Township Supervisor Kelli Ashbaugh told MLive.

But township residents say they have lost trust in their elected officials over the handling of the controversial project.

Ravenna resident Daniel Kosheba filed recall petitions last summer against the three township officials who voted in favor of the project – Powell, Winell and Treasurer Gayle Brock. Brock has since resigned from his position, township officials said.

“These (officials) voted against the will of the township residents in the first place, and we don’t trust them in the future to do the right thing,” Kosheba told MLive. “They’ve proven that they can’t be trusted, and so we’d like to see them removed.”

Kosheba said his recall petitions against Powell and Winell received over 400 signatures from township residents.

Winell told MLive that he was surprised that the petition was approved by the county clerk in the first place.

Winell said the petition, which lists reasons why the officials should be recalled, is incorrect because it implies that township officials should have voted based on how an attorney told them to vote.

Under the reason why the officials should be recalled, the petition states: “On April 23, 2019, (Powell and Winell) ignored the legal advice and counsel of the Casnovia Township attorney and voted to unlawfully approve a Special Land Use Permit” for the wind farm project.

Winell argued that it wasn’t his job to vote based on how the attorney advised him to vote, which is what he said the petition implies.

“The grounds (the petition) was filed on says that we did not listen to our lawyer’s advice. And anybody knows that your lawyer cannot tell you how to vote,” he said. “The lawyer’s only purpose was to make sure things were done right.”

Winell said he doesn’t know yet if he plans to run for re-election once his term is up in November.

Powell did not respond to multiple requests for comment from MLive.

The recall election process was changed in 2012 from a two-election process to a single recall election, according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections.

While there used to be two elections – one to recall the official and one to fill the vacancy – there is now a single recall election to fill the remainder of the official’s term, and the incumbent is automatically made a candidate in the election. The candidate who receives the most votes wins and fills the remainder of the term.

In this case, the terms of the potentially-recalled Casnovia officials will end in November of this year, meaning whoever wins this election will hold the position for only seven months.

Muskegon County Elections Coordinator Jeanne Pezet said so far, no one has filed to appear on the Aug. 4 ballot to take over the township positions in November. The deadline to file is 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, she said.