MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – This township has asked its attorney to look into allegations that its Planning Commission chairman may have a conflict of interest regarding efforts to amend the township’s wind energy ordinance.
During Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Montcalm Township Board, held via Zoom, while the subject of amending the township’s zoning ordinances regarding wind energy and wind turbines was not on the agenda, it came forward during public comment.
Township Supervisor Doug Crowley said during January’s meeting the issue won’t be discussed formally again by the Township Board or Planning Commission until August.
“We’ve pushed it out that far to give everybody a chance to talk about it and get educated,” Crowley reiterated during Wednesday’s meeting.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously in August 2020 to review and amend the ordinance after Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy expressed interest in Montcalm County as the host of its next commercial wind farm. The Planning Commission has not met since Aug. 5, 2020. A public hearing on the proposed ordinance changes is currently scheduled for this August.
Last November, several residents alleged a potential conflict of interest due to the fact that Planning Commission Chairman Richard Karnatz had signed a development-phase lease agreement with Apex in March 2020 for property he owns. At the time, Kartnatz, who was not present at Wednesday’s meeting, would not go as far as to say there was a direct conflict of interest.
“When the vote comes, I will make a decision at that point in time (on whether to vote),” he said at the Nov. 11, 2020 meeting. “I will not do anything illegal, I will not do anything that will compromise these changes if they get voted through. I will follow meeting laws to the T.”
During public comment Wednesday, township resident Richelle Lentz asked if the Township Board was taking any official steps to look into the allegations.
Lentz read aloud from the Planning Commission’s bylaws, saying: “Any member of the commission shall disclose the pertinent facts to the Commission prior to the consideration of the manner involving the possible conflict. Failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest at such time constitutes malfeasance in office.”
She went further, reading the bylaws’ specific definitions of conflict of interests as she believes they apply to Karnatz, which included: “If the member has a direct and specific business or financial relationship with the applicant; the member has a direct and specific business or financial interest in the outcome of the application; (or) the member has an ownership interest or other direct financial interest in the ownership specific to property associated with the application.”
Lentz asked if the township’s attorney was being contacted to review the matter.
“I’m not in any way shape or form saying that Mr. Karnatz should not be able to sign his lease with Apex,” she said. “Obviously, he has property and I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have the right to do that. I just think that it does pose a conflict of interest in the position he holds on the Planning Commission.”
“I have already contacted our attorney, but I have not heard back yet,” Crowley said. “So yes, I am talking to our attorney. That’s only for this specific item where there would be a conflict of interest.”
Lentz emphasized that she is only asking matters regarding the wind ordinance to be evaluated.
“I’m not saying that Mr. Karnatz should be removed from the Planning Commission or from his role as chairman on any other instance – except for the wind ordinance – because of his conflict with his lease he has signed with Apex,” she said.
Lentz said she’s hopeful the township could avoid scenarios that have played out in other townships – specifically to Sidney and Douglass townships, where meetings focused on wind turbine projects and ordinances have been plagued with allegations and fiery rhetoric.
On Wednesday, Lentz asked if there were any other township officials who may also have signed a lease with Apex, to which all five members of the board answered no.
Request for moratorium
Going further, despite the township not looking to review its ordinance until August, Lenz asked that the board consider a one-year moratorium “on any wind development” in the township.
“I think that would give the community a really good showing, that the board is looking at this from all sides and that you are all doing your due diligence,” she said. “If we’re really not looking at updating this ordinance until August, there’s really not much harm in asking for that moratorium, other than a show of faith to the community that you are really looking at everyone’s best interest.”
Crowley wouldn’t go as far as to say he believes a moratorium is needed.
“I think we need to take a look at it (ordinance) in August and go from there, that’s my personal view,” he said. “(But) we’ll take it into consideration.”
In January, Crowley said the Township Board would work to honor a request made during public comment that information regarding the public hearing in August is sent out with the annual summer tax bill to residents on July 1; however, he backtracked slightly from that commitment at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Is that something that the board needs to decide on, what the wording is, and vote, to make sure it is formalized?” Lentz asked.
“I think we’re going to have to take a look at the added cost,” Crowley responded. “When we put the tax bills together, it’s run through a machine, all folded … and to add a flyer, that’s all going to be hand-work, as I understand it. So we’re trying to figure out a good way to get everybody the notice.”
At the request of Lentz, Crowley said that subject can be placed on the board’s agenda in March.
Additionally, township resident Olivia Blomstrom asked if board members could commit to better communicating with residents via email.
“I’ve emailed all of the board and the elected officials, more than once … what is the expectation of the response from the board – a timely response – just to acknowledge that communication was received?” she asked.
Blomstrom said she had only heard back from one township trustee, Cousineau, through it was through his personal email. Hyde and Hansen said they couldn’t recall receiving an email from Blomstrom, while Crowley and Shearer did.
“I remember getting one correspondence from you … I didn’t respond back, but it was a statement, I didn’t think you were asking for anything,” Crowley said.
“I’m sure if I go back through my email, there were some questions in it, but I just want to know what the expectation is, of our elected officials, to at least respond to the residents that communication was received or acknowledged,” Blomstrom said.
Crowley apologized for the lack of response.
“I’m sorry, Olivia, we will get that straightened out,” he said. “We are part-time, we aren’t full-time, but we’ll respond as soon as we can.”
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