When pressed, Pine Township supervisor says current law firm recommended another law firm to handle wind ordinance
A recommendation for a new law firm to assist with Pine Township’s wind energy ordinance came from the township’s current law firm —which is currently representing a wind energy developer looking to construct turbines within the township.
During Monday’s Pine Township Board meeting, Supervisor Bill Drews recommended the township contract with the Okemos-based law firm Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes to handle wind-related work, while continuing to use the township’s current law firm, Grand Rapids-based Dickinson Wright, for all other township business.
Drews said the Fahey firm was recommended to him, but he repeatedly declined to answer audience questions about who made that recommendation. After the meeting had ended, a Daily News reporter asked Drews if he would answer the question so that this article could clarify the issue. Drews again repeatedly declined to answer the question.
As the reporter continued to press the issue, the exchange became a bit heated, with Drews repeatedly asking, “Why does it matter?”
Drews then cited “attorney-client privilege” in declining to answer the question. This reporter expressed confusion with this response, to which Drews asked, “Do you even understand what attorney-client privilege is?” The reporter responded that yes, she does have a basic understanding of attorney-client privilege and she doesn’t understand what that has to do with someone’s recommendation for hiring a law firm.
After some more back-and-forth, Drews finally said that it was Dickinson Wright which recommended that the township hire Fahey. Drews said “a few other people” recommended the Fahey firm as well, but he declined to specify who.
CONFLICTS & CONFUSION
The Fahey firm is currently assisting Maple Valley and Winfield townships with their wind ordinances. Drews’ recommendation to hire the Fahey firm was tabled in a 5-0 vote Monday after much discussion by Pine Township Board members.
“I would make my recommendation that this is our next best (option),” Drews told his fellow board members regarding the Fahey firm. “I would like to see it (a decision made tonight), but if you’re not comfortable with it I can pursue another firm. This one (Fahey) was a recommendation and I think it was an appropriate one.”
Some board members were concerned with Fahey’s cost (which ranges from $185 to $245 to $305 per hour depending on which attorney is handling the case, as well as $165 per hour for any work done by a legal assistant, according to Fahey’s letter of engagement).
Clerk Marla Sprague said the township currently pays Dickinson Wright about $185 per hour. Sprague and trustees Tyler Nadeau and Randy Robson all voiced concern with the prices quoted by Fahey.
Meanwhile, Treasurer Kristen Diehl was opposed to hiring Fahey for another reason.
“From some of the articles I’ve read in the Daily News … I’m not in agreement with this particular firm’s stance on conflict of interest,” Diehl said.
This comment was greeted by applause from many audience members.
“I have a different opinion about whether a person who signed a lease should be involved with creating ordinances or approving ordinances,” Diehl elaborated. “I’m more in line with Montcalm Township’s lawyer, Jeffrey Sluggett. I’m personally not on board with their (Fahey’s) view on conflict of interest … especially from quotes from Bill Fahey in the newspaper and their interpretation of conflict of interest. I don’t agree with their legal opinion. I know that from quotes in the newspaper stories I’ve read … the Daily News had quotes from Bill Fahey and Kyle O’Meara. I’m just stating that I don’t agree with their opinion on it.”
As discussion continued regarding which law firm to hire, Drews noted, “At this point we’re not creating an ordinance. We already have an ordinance.”
“Revising. We’re revising, right?” Diehl clarified.
“If it’s perceived that it needs to be revised,” Drews responded.
Drews’ comment promoted loud groans, comments and confusion throughout the room, as the township’s Planning Commission has been working all summer on updating the township’s wind ordinance based on the results of a survey which was mailed out and paid for by the township. The Planning Commission has met three times now to discuss wind ordinance updates (with one of those meetings adjourning early due to an abrupt resignation and thus lack of a quorum). All those meetings have been public, well-attended by residents and covered by the Daily News.
Mark Mitchell of Pine Township voiced the bewilderment of many people in the room.
“The words you used … left me a little unsure of what exactly it is that the Planning Commission is doing with the ordinance concerning wind,” Mitchell said. “Are we rewriting an ordinance or is that still in question whether we’re going to have a different ordinance? I’m confused about that by what you said.”
“We have an ordinance in place,” Drews said. “The only way that that would be changed is if that was rescinded and we started over, or if it were amended. In our situation, until we have legal representation in place, you can pretty much expect there’s not going to be any changes to that ordinance until that person is on the board. It’ll stand as it is written right now.”
“I understand that,” Mitchell said. “But there is a moratorium on the present wind ordinance (which is currently set to expire in mid-October). Once we have legal representation that we’re happy with, then the Planning Commission is amending the current wind ordinance, is that their mission?”
“It’s up to the Planning Commission,” Sprague interjected. “We can’t dictate to the Planning Commission what their job is. It’s their job to bring it to us once it’s completed.”
“So it’s not settled whether we’re amending the present ordinance or whether you’re going to rescind the current ordinance and write a new one?” Mitchell asked.
“I guess all those options are up in the air,” Drews responded.
“I don’t feel like you’ve answered my question,” Mitchell said.
“I think your question is, is the Planning Commission on board with coming up with or amending or writing some language for an ordinance that would protect the residents of Pine Township?” Nadeau interjected (Nadeau is a member of both the township board and the Planning Commission). “And I believe that is our intent, I wholeheartedly believe that I think we’ll pursue that again once we have legal representation.”
The board voted 5-0 to table Fahey’s engagement letter until October’s township board meeting “in the hopes of getting some competitive quotes from other law firms,” according to Sprague.
Later during public comment, several audience members specifically asked Drews who made the recommendation to hire the Fahey firm.
“I’d like to understand where the recommendation for Fahey Schultz came from, in the manner of full disclosure and transparency … in the name of transparency, for us to understand how that consideration came about,” Nancy Spanski of Pine Township said. “I’d like to understand where that recommendation came from.”
“Who recommended that firm?” Leslie Rydahl of Pine Township asked. “That firm (Fahey) is diametrically opposed to what your survey revealed. I think it’s quite coincidental that all these townships now are jumping on with Fahey It seems to me – and I hate to say this – that there’s an agenda other than what your survey revealed. And I really don’t understand it at all.”
“Should I submit a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request) verbally right now requesting any contact information between Fahey and yourself, or are you going to answer us tonight?” Lindsey Simon of Pine Township asked.
“Why is it important?” Drews responded.
“Because you’re in their pockets,” a woman declared.
“No, I’m not,” Drews declared. “I’m not in anybody’s pockets.
“There’s no strings anywhere up here, folks,” Drews added, holding his arms above his head and gesturing with his fingers as if he were manipulating a puppet.
As residents continued to question him, Drews said, “Our exchange is just going to degrade from here.”
The meeting concluded shortly thereafter, leading to the exchange between the Daily News and Drews.
Also during Monday’s meeting, Drews reported that Rosemary Witt has resigned from the Planning Commission, leaving a vacancy. Witt was the Planning Commission’s secretary.
Witt was one of four planners who voted at the last Planning Commission meeting on Aug. 16 to abruptly adjourn the meeting in the middle of public comment (a violation of the Open Meetings Act) while residents were asking questions about the township’s law firm. The motion to adjourn passed 4-3 with planners Bob Behrenwald, Chris Bell, Gary Christensen and Witt voting “yes” and Nadeau, Dan Main and Chairman Scott Millard voting “no.”
The Planning Commission is next scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. on Oct. 11, followed by the regular township board meeting at 7 p.m.
[rest of article available at source]
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