With a few rips of a piece of paper, a Montcalm Township Board member expressed his frustration in dramatic fashion Wednesday evening regarding a subject that has hung over this township for several months – conflict of interest.
Trustee Brian Cousineau requested that the topic of Planning Commission Chairman Richard “Dick” Karnatz be placed on the meeting’s agenda.
Karnatz has been the subject of attention since he spoke openly at Planning Commission meetings in March and June on the subject of wind energy.
Per the advice of township attorney Jeff Sluggett of Bloom Sluggett in Grand Rapids, Karnatz was advised to refrain from participating in discussion or vote on issues related to wind energy due to having previously signed a property lease agreement with Apex Clean Energy, which is working to construct wind turbines in Montcalm County.
While Karnatz recused himself from the most recent meeting of the Planning Commission on Aug. 2 when the township’s wind energy ordinance was discussed, Cousineau said he believes Karnatz’s conflict of interest has been further expanded upon – this time outside of the township.
Representing the township?
On July 28, Karnatz attended a meeting of the Douglass Township Planning Commission and chose to speak during public comment.
As the Douglass Township Planning Commission is currently working to amend its own wind energy ordinance, Karnatz spoke on the subject of wind ordinances in general, giving his opinion on subjects such as shadow flicker as well as concerns over creating an ordinance that could be considered too restrictive and exclusionary.
“I would rather have something where you can work together between both sides of this and reach an agreement, because if you can control it now, then the state can’t come in here and say, ‘well, 500-foot’s good,’” Karnatz said at that meeting.
Cousineau took issue with how Karnatz introduced himself before speaking.
“Dick Karnatz, Montcalm Township, I’m also on the planning commission there,” Cousineau said.
Cousineau said he believes Karnatz has continued to demonstrate a conflict of interest.
“It’s not the fact that he speaks openly about wanting wind (turbines), it’s the issue that at this meeting for Douglass Township, he expressed that he was a Montcalm Township planning commissioner,” he said. “When you are using titles in your comment for public use and you are saying you are a commissioner or any board member, you are using that position of authority to influence a potential decision that our board can make.”
To further make his point, Cousineau stood up holding two pieces of paper – one representing the township’s Planning Commission bylaws, the other demonstrating an Apex property lease.
“It’s fine that you have the Apex lease, but when you are going out and you are speaking openly to other boards, using your position of authority, you are taking this and ripping it up,” he said.
Cousineau then proceeded to rip up the piece of paper representing the bylaws.
“You are throwing this in the trash and you are saying, ‘I only want this (Apex lease), this is the only thing that I care about, for my financial benefit,’” he said.
Request for removal
Cousineau went on to say that it was his desire for the Township Board to schedule a public hearing to discuss removing Karnatz from the Planning Commission.
“He cares more about the Apex lease than about our bylaws and following our governmental rules,” Cousineau alleged. “I understand that we’ve said people have made mistakes in this process, I understand we are human and we may not be aware of certain things, but I gotta say give me a break to that because Mr. Karnatz has been on the Planning Commission, from my understanding, for a period greater than five years. If you haven’t read those (bylaws) being an elected official, you probably shouldn’t be an election official.”
Cousineau then motioned to schedule the public hearing.
“A motion has been made on the floor, do I hear a second?” Supervisor Doug Crowley asked.
After about five seconds of silence, Crowley asked for a second to the motion again, and again no vote of support on the motion was given. Thus the motion died.
Cousineau expressed his frustration with his fellow four board members.
“I just want to say with that, that you guys, by not motioning and supporting this and allowing this behavior to occur – there’s no point in having our government because we aren’t holding ourselves accountable to the rules we have set,” he said. “Honestly, as a trustee and an elected official, it makes me feel like I should resign – I’m not going to – but it makes me feel like I should because I don’t want to be part of the corrupt, governmental system. I ran to make a difference here —“
Crowley interrupted Cousineau.
“Woah, you’re not calling me corrupt, period – you better not,” Crowley interjected. “I’ve talked to the attorney and he gave me a written statement concerning Dick talking in Douglass … he has a right as a resident of the county to go to any meeting and express himself.”
The Daily News received a copy from Crowley on Thursday of the correspondence between himself and Sluggett.
“As I advised the board and said to the audience when I was at the township several weeks ago, Dick has not, simply because he has a lease or option with Apex, given up his rights as a private citizen to speak in Montcalm Township or elsewhere regarding the topic of WESs (wind energy systems),” Sluggett wrote. “We have encouraged him to comment, if he feels the need to do so, in writing when possible. Nonetheless, he has the absolute right to speak as a private citizen.
“He needs to avoid saying anything that could reasonably be construed to mean that he is speaking for Montcalm Township or on behalf of any Township body (e.g. the Planning Commission),” Sluggett added.
Sluggett said he does not believe Karnatz was speaking intending to represent a township official at the Douglass Township meeting.
“Here I think that is the problem with his appearance in the other community; i.e., Dick mentioned in his prefatory comments that he was a member of the Montcalm Township Planning Commission,” he said. “While absolutely true, this could be construed as meaning that he was speaking for the Planning Commission even though we know that that was not the case.”
Sluggett recommended that if Karnatz chooses to speak at such a meeting again, that he not mention his status as member of the Planning Commission.
“It is our recommendation that if Dick desires to speak at meetings on WESs, that he make an effort to avoid stating that he holds an office with the township,” Sluggett said.
Cousineau remained firm on his opposition of Karnatz, or any other Montcalm Township official, speaking out on the subject of any government issue when identifying oneself as a government official.
“I said I agree that Mr. Karnatz has a right to speak to the public about his opinions about wind, but what I don’t agree with is that any public official should be going around to any township, regardless of what it is, and say ‘I am a Montcalm Township Planning Commissioner’ and then state their opinion,” he said. “You are using your position of power to push an agenda, whether it is for or against any topic. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. You are violating our bylaws. Unfortunately, it’s sad that you (Crowley) hear it from the public, and you have to go to the attorney and ask ‘is this OK or is it not OK? Do we really want to deal with that headache?”
At that point, discussion by the board on the subject of Karnatz ended with no action taken.
While the township board voted unanimously at the meeting to allow the Planning Commission to meet monthly instead of quarterly until the wind ordinance is amended, several members of the audience questioned the effectiveness of the Planning Commission being that it is essentially reduced from five to four members with Karnatz having to recuse himself during discussions and votes pertaining to wind.
“I attended the Planning Commission meeting we had here (Aug. 2) and I was very impressed with the leadership of the meeting, however, when Mr. Dolphin had to take over, that meeting was a disaster,” township resident Karen Baird said. “We need someone that can strongly lead, but when he has to recuse himself … they didn’t deal with the agenda, they didn’t deal with the ordinance … I’m disappointed at this point because we took two hours and accomplished nothing.”
While the Planning Commission took no action regarding the wind ordinance at the Aug. 2 meeting, planners did reach a consensus to begin evaluating other wind ordinances from neighboring townships to potentially use as a template going forward.
Township resident Richelle Lentz, who has called for Karnatz’s resignation at a previous meeting, said she believes the township board should look into adding a sixth planner to avoid a potential 2-2 tie vote on the wind ordinance. Lentz said she would be willing to accept that role.
“I’d be willing to sit on the Planning Commission if that’s what you need,” she said. “I’m very interested in this. I think it’s important that we hear both sides. I know there are people in this room that are ‘pro wind’ that believe I’m ‘anti wind,’ but I’m ‘pro doing the right thing for this township,’ for both sides of this community. I think it’s important that those that are for wind and not interested in the turbines are treated equally, so I’d like to put my name out there if that’s something you’d consider.”
According to the Michigan Planning Act, a city, village, or township planning commission must consist of five, seven or nine members, meaning if the Montcalm Township Planning Commission were to expand, it would need to add at least two additional members.
Per the Act, in a municipality such as Montcalm Township, the chief elected official (township supervisor) shall appoint members of the planning commission, subject to approval by a majority vote of the members of the legislative body (township board) elected and serving.
While Michigan law allows a Zoning Board of Appeals to have up to two alternate members to serve to reach a decision on a case in which the member has abstained for reasons of conflict of interest on a Zoning Board of Appeals, that stipulation does not apply to planning commissions.
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