The majority of the Pine Township Planning Commission voted to adjourn Monday’s meeting in the middle of public comment, a clear violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
The abrupt adjournment came in the middle of residents protesting the fact that the attorney Pine Township is preparing to use to advise them on their wind ordinance is also employed by a law firm which locally represents Apex Clean Energy on the topic of wind ordinances.
The Planning Commission spent 90 minutes Monday reviewing Sidney Township’s recently approved wind ordinance, which Pine Township planners have agreed to use as a template. All seven Pine Township planners were present, including Dan Main, who is newly appointed after Steve Fisk resigned on Aug. 2.
“They’re coming to this area one way or the other,” Planning Commission Chairman Scott Millard said of wind turbines. “The big question was, is our zoning gonna handle what’s coming?”
CONFLICTED LAW FIRM?
As planners spent the first hour and a half of Monday’s meeting reviewing Sidney Township’s ordinance section by section, Millard noted that Dickinson Wright attorney Ronald Bultje will be present at the next Planning Commission meeting to advise Pine Township planners on their wind ordinance. Millard said Bultje has already expressed some concerns with Sidney Township’s ordinance, including language about turbine setbacks.
“He had a couple of questions about Sidney,” Millard said. “This (setbacks language) is the one that (Bultje) felt was a little bit heavy. This one we’ve definitely gotta look at. That 3,000 feet or five times the tip height, he was a little worried about that.”
Millard ended the review of Sidney’s ordinance by mentioning that Bultje’s firm of Dickinson Wright also represents Apex, which several audience members protested.
“The only thing he can really help us with on this is the wording,” Millard said. “I asked that same question regarding conflict of interest and he said, ‘it would be a conflict of interest if I was representing both parties, but all I’m doing for this township is helping you with your ordinance.’”
Audience members responded to this with exclamations of “No!” and disbelieving laughter.
“He’s been the township lawyer for quite awhile,” Millard added.
“The canons of ethics do not allow him to do that, not without you guys waiving it and I don’t know why in the world you would waive it,” said retired attorney Robert Scott of Sidney Township from the audience. “If they chose to represent Apex at any point in time, they cannot now represent you.”
Several audience members said that Pine Township Supervisor Bill Drews had already waived any conflict of interest concerns with Bultje, to which Scott responded, “Oh my goodness.”
“I know Bill (Drews) is very comfortable with him (Bultje),” Millard said.
The Daily News contacted Bultje and Drews on Tuesday to clarify the matter. Drews did not respond before publication, but Bultje told the Daily News that Pine Township officials signed a waiver in the later part of 2020 allowing Bultje to “represent the township in working on a wind energy ordinance that would generally apply to all applicants.
“I would not represent the township with regard to an application filed by a client of my firm,” Bultje added.
Dickinson Wright attorneys have represented Apex locally in recent months on the topic of wind ordinances.
In April, Dickinson Wright attorney Tom Forshee attended a Winfield Township Zoning Board of Appeals meeting alongside Apex Senior Development Manager Albert Jongewaard.
In May, Dickinson Wright attorney Rock Wood wrote a letter to the Sidney Township Board and Planning Commission to express “serious concerns” regarding that township’s proposed wind ordinance. That same ordinance was approved by the Sidney Township Board in July and is now the same ordinance that Bultje is preparing to advise Pine Township officials on.
“He’s (Bultje) gonna have answers, but they’re gonna be Apex answers,” said Vinny Trierweiler of Pine Township, one of many audience members to voice concern about the arrangement.
After 90 minutes of reviewing Sidney Township’s ordinance, Pine Township planners began taking public comment.
Half an hour later, the meeting abruptly adjourned.
Apex Clean Energy Development Manager Shelley Schwab addressed planners to share some wind energy documents and to express her concern about Sidney Township’s ordinance, which she said originally came from Tuscola County’s Almer Township and Muskegon County’s Casnovia Township.
“Several townships have seen these and none of those townships have really qualified to have a wind project in their area due to those ordinances,” Schwab said. “What I heard tonight sounded a lot like exclusionary zoning, and that’s concerning, of course, to us or any other developer that would want to come in for economic development in your community.”
Planners and audience members interrupted Schwab several times while she spoke for about eight minutes.
“The township gets less than 1 percent of the power from these things, so the big cities get it all? Take that crap to the city, take it somewhere else,” planner Chris Bell declared.
“I wouldn’t sign a contract for that to save my life,” said planner Gary Christensen later in the meeting. “30 years? Not a chance.”
Later during public comment, in light of the revelation that Bultje works for Dickinson Wright, multiple audience members requested Pine Township use a different law firm.
Lindsey Simon asked whether attorney Joshua Nolan of Nolan Law could be placed on the agenda at the next meeting to speak. Nolan has been retained by a group of citizens in Pine Township on the topic of wind energy, as well as by citizens in Douglass, Maple Valley and Winfield townships.
As Millard began to respond to Simon, planner Bob Behrenwald interrupted the discussion.
“Point of order, Mr. Chairman,” Behrenwald declared. “We’ve been two hours (90 minutes of planner discussion and 30 minutes of public comment).”
“Make a motion to adjourn,” Secretary Rosemary Witt responded.
Audience members began to protest this as many people were still waiting to speak.
“I make a motion we adjourn,” Behrenwald said.
Bell supported the motion.
A vote took place but it was difficult to tell who voted “yes” and who voted “no” so the Daily News requested a roll call vote, which Millard allowed. Behrenwald, Bell, Christensen and Witt all voted “yes” while Main, Millard and Tyler Nadeau voted “no,” meaning the motion passed 4-3.
“Meeting is adjourned,” Millard said.
“So no public comment then?” Sheila Crooks of Douglass Township asked from the audience.
According to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act: “A public body may adopt a rule imposing individual time limits for members of the public addressing the public body. In order to carry out its responsibilities, the board can also consider establishing rules allowing the chairperson to encourage groups to designate one or more individuals to speak on their behalf to avoid cumulative comments. But a rule limiting the period of public comment may not be applied in a manner that denies a person the right to address the public body, such as by limiting all public comment to a half-hour period.”
The next Planning Commission meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Aug. 30 at Pine Township Hall.
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