When it comes to who is and isn’t allowed to speak on the subject of wind energy at the level of local government, the answer may not be as clear as expected.
During the June 9 meeting of the Montcalm Township Board, Trustee Brian Cousineau made it clear he believes the township hasn’t done enough to address the topic of conflict of interest.
“With all of this wind stuff, I think that we can’t be successful in our endeavors, regardless of what direction we go, unless we figure out this conflict of interest thing with Mr. Karnatz,” he said.
Cousineau was referring to Richard “Dick” Karnatz, the chairman of the Montcalm Township Planning Commission, and Karnatz’s alleged conflict of interest in terms of the Planning Commission working to amend its wind energy ordinance.
In response, Township Supervisor Doug Crowley said he didn’t believe there was anything to address.
“It’s already been figured out,” Crowley responded.
On Aug. 5, 2020, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to review and amend its wind ordinance after Apex Clean Energy expressed interest in the township as one of several in Montcalm County to serve as a host of its next potential commercial wind farm – Montcalm Wind. Prior to that vote, Karnatz signed a lease agreement in March 2020, and once that revelation came to light, several residents came forward stating they felt that action resulted in a conflict of interest.
The township’s attorney, Jeffrey Sluggett of Bloom Sluggett PC in Grand Rapids, initially informed Crowley this spring that it was his opinion that Karnatz had not committed a conflict of interest. However, Sluggett soon reversed course and said there actually was a conflict of interest.
According to Crowley, after Sluggett reviewed the Planning Commission bylaws in further detail, he came to the recommendation that Karnatz participating in discussions and decisions pertaining to wind energy does constitute a conflict of interest and he should recuse himself from all such discussions and decisions going forward.
“Dick will recuse himself from all conversations – he’s still on the (commission), he’s still the chairman – but he has to recuse himself from any other discussion on that,” Crowley said in May.
But following the June 2 meeting of the Planning Commission, Cousineau said he didn’t believe Karnatz held true to recusing himself from all conversations.
While wind energy was not on the June 2 agenda, the hourlong public comment portion of the meeting focused almost entirely on wind energy concerns from residents.
“I’m really, slightly concerned about what I saw at the Planning Commission meeting, in regards to Mr. Karnatz’s comments,” Cousineau said. “If he’s supposed to recuse himself … him sitting up there and establishing to the public his further opinion in regards to the wind items at hand, I think that’s inappropriate. He’s supposed to recuse himself. I guess my question to you is, what are the plans to address that and ensure he is compliant with that recusal?”
Crowley said he didn’t believe there was much left to address.
“He (Karnatz) did start to speak, but he quit, apologized, and stopped – he did recuse himself,” he said. “He cannot vote or discuss things concerning wind, but he’s still on the (commission).”
Cousineau said he believed he and Crowley shared different accounts of what occurred at the meeting.
“I don’t think he really stopped (talking) though, in my opinion,” Cousineau said.
“I’m sorry, but he did,” Crowley responded.
Participating in discussion
While the Daily News was not in attendance for the June 2 Planning Commission meeting, video of the meeting was recorded by a resident and posted on social media. Per that two-hour recording, public comment began about 54 minutes into the meeting with several residents expressing concerns over the prospect of wind turbines coming to the township. Residents also expressed concerns over the township’s wind ordinance not doing enough to protect them from alleged negative effects of turbines once constructed.
After about 15 minutes of discussion, concerns started to become more focused on Karnatz, as resident Paul Houghtaling called into question Karnatz’s involvement on the commission.
“Does anybody on the (Commission) have a vested interest, like signing a lease already?” he asked.
Vice Chairman Jeff Dolphin said that due to Karnatz having signed a lease with Apex, he would not be involved in the decision of amending the township’s wind ordinance.
“If it’s actually discussion by the board on wind, it will be me (leading it),” Dolphin said. “Dick will recuse himself – he will not vote. As vice chair, I will be taking over. Those concerns have been addressed.”
Houghtaling then directly addressed Dolphin.
“Are you going to put one in your backyard?” he asked.
“If I had the property level to put in a wind turbine and promote green energy, yes, I would do it,” Dolphin answered.
“Green energy? Is that the answer?” Houghtaling asked.
“For me, yes, because I care about the environment,” Dolphin answered.
Following the back-and-forth, Dolphin began talking over multiple members of the audience attempting to interrupt with additional questions.
“I think we need to approach all avenues of energy … whether it be coal, oil, natural gas, wind, solar, or nuclear … because we’re going to be demanding much more energy (going forward),” he said.
As members of the audience continued to interject, Karnatz decided to speak up.
“OK, moving on – we’re not going to be getting into an argument,” he said. “We’re here to listen to your comments.”
The next comment to follow was also targeted at Karnatz, coming from a man who only identified himself as “Steve from Montcalm Township,” and claimed to be a neighbor of Karnatz.
“Rumor has it you’re going to be putting one (turbine) in your southwest corner on Fuller Road? Put it behind your house on Fitzner Road (instead),” Steve said.
“Number one, let me explain something to you – I can’t say a thing about it,” Karnatz responded. “Number two, nobody knows where the wind turbines are going to go, period.”
“But you’re in favor?” Steve asked.
“I’m in favor because it’s going to help the county, it’s going to help the township with tax dollars on millages such as the fire millage and any school bond and so on and so forth,” Karnatz said.
As Karnatz continued to speak, he was interrupted by resident Diane Fountain.
“I hate to say this, but you shouldn’t be talking about any of this, you should be recusing yourself from this whole thing,” Fountain said. “We don’t need your input.”
“OK, that’s fair, I agree,” Karnatz said.
But Karnatz ended up speaking three more times during public comment, once to inform the public that the Planning Commission had received a letter of correspondence from some residents expressing their concerns on wind energy, and a second time for about 90 seconds to elaborate on the commission’s process of amending the ordinance and expectations on a timeline.
“There’s no timeline that I know of, other than there’s a lot of information that these people (pointing to fellow planners) need to research on both sides of the aisle because that’s their job, unfortunately,” Karnatz said. “I will only say one thing: The ordinance has to be a legal ordinance. You cannot exclude them (turbines). You can make it safe for welfare, health and safety, but you’ve got to be able to pass the test that it’s not exclusionary. I’m saying this as chairman of the Planning Commission because if it’s exclusionary, there’s a possibility you could be sued and we don’t want that. Most companies don’t want to sue anyone they want to be doing business with, but we don’t know that for a fact. So it’s the Planning Commission’s job to weigh all of your comments and do all of the research and try to come up with something that fits everybody.”
Karnatz spoke a final time for just under one minute to address another accusation from Houghtaling.
“When they know you’ve got skin in the game, are these other people (commissioners) going to vote against this when you are running it (the commission)? I don’t think so,” Houghtaling said.
“I’ve been on this board for 10 years, at least,” Karnatz responded. “Bob (Commissioner Robert Hemmes) has been on it for (about 30 years). I’m not going to put words in his mouth, but I think my viewpoint is (Secretary) Erin (Nerychel) can vote any way she wants, that’s OK with me … and so can those two (Board Liaison Jessica Shearer and Dolphin). That’s why it’s a board. You make a decision. If you’re on the losing end of that decision, that’s the way it goes, you move on. They can vote any way they want.”
Open Meetings Act question
One of the reasons both Crowley and Cousineau had their own accounts of the Planning Commission meeting is that they were both in attendance.
As Clerk Shearer was also in attendance as a member of Planning Commission, three members of the five-member township board had gathered together in one setting outside of a board meeting, which under certain circumstances, could constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act (OMA).
Per the OMA, discussing municipal business with a quorum of board members outside of an open meeting violates the OMA. While the Planning Commission meeting was an open meeting, it was not a publicly posted Township Board meeting.
These points were brought forward by Fountain. Karnatz responded by saying that as Crowley and Cousineau were not contributing in conversation and thus were not discussing business of the Township Board outside of a public board meeting, he believed their presence was OK.
“As long as that one (Crowley) and that one (Cousineau) are not participating and saying ‘I think we should do this,’ we’re fine,” he said. “They are still citizens of the township, but if they were up there (contributing), yeah, that’s a problem, I agree. As long as they are just observing and listening (that’s OK).”
Closed meeting to address attorney opinion
During the June 9 township board meeting, Cousineau said that in light of what transpired at the June 2 Planning Commission meeting, he would like the email communications between the township attorney and Crowley regarding the conflict of interest situation to be shared with the rest of the board.
“So it already happened … how do we ensure it doesn’t happen again?” Cousineau asked regarding Karnatz participating in discussion. “I understand he can’t be involved in the wind discussions during the board meetings, but then how are we going to address the issue when public comment comes up?”
“Number one, he can still step away from the table, he can sit in the audience, he’s a resident, and he can speak – that’s what the attorney said,” Crowley answered. “As a resident of the township, he can still give his opinion, but not as a board member.”
When asked when the board could discuss the emails in question, Crowley said that could only occur during a closed session of the board due to attorney-client privilege.
In response, Cousineau asked if the board could meet in closed session at the July 14 meeting for the purpose of reviewing the attorney’s communication.
“I think the issue really needs to be resolved,”Cousineau said. “If we get to a point where they (Planning Commission) get to an ordinance, whether it’s a good ordinance or a bad ordinance … if we haven’t resolved that issue (conflict of interest), how can we effectively vote on a decision not knowing that a conflict of interest has existed and put us in that conundrum?”
“He’s (Karnatz) already declared that he can’t vote and can’t speak while on the (commission) – period,” Crowley answered.
“But he did (speak), that’s my point,” Cousineau countered.
To that end, Crowley agreed to hold a closed session of the Township Board per Cousineau’s request.
“OK, we’re going to have a (closed) meeting, next meeting, period, to settle this, to be done with this,” he said.
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