STANTON – The Montcalm County Election Commission on Wednesday voted to deny 19 sets of wind-related recall language involving two townships and to approve three sets of recall language against three township officials.
Montcalm County Judge Charles Simon III, Montcalm County Clerk Kristen Millard and Montcalm County Treasurer JoAnne Vukin voted to approve one set each of recall language against Douglass Township Supervisor Terry Anderson, Clerk Ronda Snyder and Trustee Tom Jeppesen while denying the nine other sets of recall language. The Election Commission voted to deny all three sets of recall language against Treasurer Amy Laper.
The Election Commission also voted to deny 10 sets of recall language submitted against the Winfield Township Board, including Supervisor Phyllis Larson, Clerk Colleen Stebbins, Treasurer Cathy Killinger and trustees John Black and Steve Cole.
Wednesday’s recall clarity hearing was well attended by residents from multiple townships.
“I get mail from these people after these hearings,” Simon told the audience as the hearing began. “Other board members are getting mail from people after these hearings. We don’t have an opinion on whether this recall should be granted. We’re here for one purpose – to determine whether the language is clear and that the voters and trustees understand why the recall is being filed. So spare us your hate mail, please. I don’t need it, they don’t need it. We will not be expressing an opinion whether recall in these cases is warranted or justified. That’s not why we’re here. This is a legal proceeding.”
Ben Reynolds of Douglass Township had Ohio-based attorney Joshua Nolan speak on his behalf before the Election Commission in Reynolds’ second attempt to recall four Douglass Township Board members.
Nolan said Reynolds’ proposed language “states factually and clearly the reasons for the recall,” and added, “I expect this is the most controversial issue to face Douglass Township in recent memory.”
Noting that Reynolds’ recall language against Laper referenced Laper abstaining from voting to appoint Paul Olson to that township’s Planning Commission, Vukin said she thought it was a duty of an elected official to abstain from voting if there was a conflict of interest. Nolan pointed out that Laper never stated why she was abstaining.
“So then the people that are signing this particular petition, if it was approved, would have to agree that what you are saying there is true?” Vukin asked.
“Not quite, ma’am,” Nolan responded. “I think a lot of the time, people will sign a recall petition because they want to give the voters an opportunity to vote on the issue, not necessarily because they believe the language of the recall petition. I’ve encountered that with numerous petitions. It is possible that there are citizens out there who will sign this simply because they believe that the citizens should have another opportunity to vote on this issue.”
“That’s a new one to me,” Vukin said in surprise.
The Election Commission voted 3-0 to deny all three sets of recall language against Laper.
“If I’m confused why she should be recalled because she abstained from voting when she felt she had a conflict, I can’t believe that the voters wouldn’t also be confused,” Millard explained. “As for … the sentence added to the end, ‘by abstaining to vote with no explanation why, Amy Laper was not fulfilling her duties as a board member,’ I think that’s a matter of opinion, not a fact. I believe that as elected officials we all know that if we have conflicts of interest, it’s best for us to not vote.”
“I would agree, especially … the statement that she was ‘not fulfilling her duties as a board member’ – I know personally that most of the public does not know what duties of board members are and whose responsibility it is to do what,” Vukin added. “By saying that, to me, that would be confusing.”
The Election Commission voted 3-0 to deny two sets of recall language each against Anderson, Jeppesen and Snyder but voted 3-0 to approve one set of recall language each against those three officials.
“It is of sufficient clarity,” said Millard of the approved language. “Do I feel that it’s a reason to make officials that have been in office for many, many years subject to recall? I do not, but our job is very specific as to whether we feel that the wording is sufficient.”
The approved recall language states, “On Jan. 5, 2022, (Anderson/Jeppesen/Snyder) voted to appoint Paul Olson to the Douglass Township Planning Commission despite the fact that Mr. Olson had signed a Nov. 4, 2019, letter as a member of a landowner group negotiating for ‘long-term wind easements with Apex Clean Energy’ and later signed a wind energy easement agreement with Coral Wind I LLC on or about March 30, 2020. (Anderson/Jeppesen/Snyder) voted to appoint Mr. Olson to the Douglass Township Planning Commission with full knowledge that Paul Olson’s contractual relationship with Coral Wind I LLC would preclude him from deliberating or voting on any matter involving the creation or adoption of a wind energy zoning ordinance.”
The recall language is good for 180 days, but once residents begin collecting signatures in support of the recall, a 60-day window begins. In order for the recall to appear on November’s ballot, enough signatures of township residents must be filed by Aug. 5 with the Montcalm County Clerk’s Office.
The Election Commission voted 3-0 to deny all 10 sets of recall language filed by Dave Meyers of Winfield Township against Larson, Stebbins, Killinger, Black and Cole.
Meyers’ recall language was the same for Larson, Stebbins, Killinger and Cole, all related to their vote last November to approve a solar ordinance (Black was absent from that meeting). That solar ordinance included language which appeared to authorize the use of a “wind energy facility or wind energy conversion facility” in the ag district, but the solar ordinance as a whole contained no regulations for such facilities.
“We believe that was done purposefully to avoid regulation on wind,” Meyers said.
Following the township board’s vote last November, Winfield Township resident Tricia Korhorn filed a notice of intent to referendum the solar ordinance.
The Winfield Township Board voted last December to “correct” the solar ordinance by removing the language referring to wind – something Korhorn doesn’t believe they could legally do as she had already initiated a referendum process.
As supervisor, Larson spoke on behalf of her township board at Wednesday’s hearing.
“Sadly these potential recall petitions seem to be the fallout of the ongoing wind turbine debate in our county,” Larson said. “Notable, our board has not even participated yet in considering a wind ordinance, as that is before the Planning Commission. All of us want to do right for our residents. This has been hard because we have community disagreements. Unfortunately, some disagreements have taken a very negative tone in our county. Recalling our entire board will severely impact our township. There will be no township clerk to run the election. It will create chaos and hurt our residents.”
Larson said Meyers’ proposed recall language doesn’t meet the standard of the law.
“The questions are misleading and unclear because the board did not end up adopting the solar ordinance that referenced wind projects,” she said. “It rescinded that copy at the request of residents to remove an accidental reference to wind. Allowing these questions would punish the board for trying to work with the residents that are now requesting recall petitions.”
Larson also noted formatting issues on the recall petitions submitted by Meyers: “Words are covered up by other words and not written on the lines of the form,” she said.
Simon noted that while the township board voted on a solar ordinance in November and corrected it in December, recall language wasn’t filed until March and doesn’t reference the vote to correct.
“We haven’t adopted it because it’s in referendum,” said Larson regarding the solar ordinance. “We don’t have a solar ordinance, basically.”
Cole also spoke briefly, noting that the Montcalm County Planning Commission reviewed the township’s solar ordinance and they missed the wording referring to wind, as did the township board.
“If I would have seen that, I would have voted no,” Cole said.
“I have an issue with that petition because it was filed in March after the December ordinance which amended it,” Simon said. “To me, that’s not clear. It’s misleading at best and it doesn’t include the corrective action that the board took in December. That’s my take on that. They took corrective action when they realized the mistake.”
“After we filed a referendum,” Meyers pointed out from the audience.
“The problem we have here is it has to be clear and it has to be factual,” Simon responded.
Nolan asked if he could comment here, but Simon said no.
“Public comment’s been closed?” Nolan asked.
“Yes,” Simon answered.
Although public comment was listed on Wednesday’s hearing agenda, the Election Commission never offered a chance for public comment. Reynolds, Nolan and Meyers were all given a chance to address the recall wording, but no public comment option was offered.
Millard said she thought Meyers’ recall language against Black was confusing because it referenced his vote in December to approve the solar ordinance, but didn’t provide any background information about November’s solar ordinance vote. Millard also felt the language, “Such action created a zoning ordinance amendment regulating solar energy systems that does not provide sufficient protections for the health, safety and welfare of Winfield Township residents,” was “an opinion, not a fact.”
Vukin referenced Larson’s comment about formatting issues, asking if legally the language needs to be clearly on the lines provided on the recall form, to which Millard responded yes.
“There’s not enough room on there to provide information,” Meyers said from the audience, but Simon cut him off, saying, “Sir, time for comment is over.”
Simon said he thought the language against Black was factual, but Millard said it didn’t offer enough context.
“We’ve gone down that road where we’ve approved wording that didn’t have an explanation, and I personally have regrets over that,” Millard admitted.
“It’s factual, but it’s not clear,” Simon agreed. “He voted that way, but it’s not clear as to why that subjects him to recall.”
“I would agree with that,” Vukin added.
Nolan scoffed and laughed quietly from the audience at these comments.
“You can have your opinion, Mr. Nolan, and you can just keep it to yourself,” Simon told him.
“I haven’t said a word, your honor. I’m just sitting here silently,” Nolan responded.
After the Election Commission voted to deny the language against all five township officials, Simon told the audience, “As we’ve indicated, that does not preclude the filing of subsequent petitions for recall. You can file an amended petition.”
“Or appeal to the Circuit Court,” Nolan said from the audience.
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