By Elisabeth Waldon | Daily News | May 28, 2022 | www.thedailynews.cc
DOUGLASS TOWNSHIP – The Douglass Township Planning Commission is recommending the township board approve two wind energy ordinances – a newly created one, plus one from 2017 that was never properly noticed or adopted – as well as recommending the board vote to rescind the 2017 ordinance altogether.
The three votes came during a chaotic meeting Wednesday at which a man was ordered to leave the meeting after an outburst, a Planning Commission member was ordered to leave the table due to a conflict of interest, questions were raised about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act (OMA) – and that was just in the first half-hour.
The meeting ended after two hours with a woman accusing a man of trespassing to report her vehicles to the township, and she also said three cats were recently found shot to death on her property. (See Tuesday’s Daily News for a follow-up story on these items.)
FOIA, OMA & CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Planning Commissioner Rick Baldwin expressed concerns about how his colleagues may be skirting OMA and FOIA requirements by texting and messaging each other outside of meetings. He said after the last meeting, Chairman Jack Jeppesen messaged Todd Wells (who resigned from the Planning Commission soon after) and also texted Baldwin and Vice Chairwoman Tammy Sweeris about township business.
“I want to be excluded from your string so I don’t get caught up in this or get FOIA’d,” Baldwin said. “Four PC members – that’s a public meeting.”
Jeppesen clarified that his messages were sent separately, adding, “Get to your point.”
“I don’t feel that the conduct going on outside of this (meeting) is what a Planning Commission should be,” Baldwin said. “The way we’re conducting meetings has got to be upright or we’re going to get in trouble over it. I don’t want to be FOIA’d.”
Baldwin also questioned a public comment stating that Sweeris’ brother and father have connections to an Apex Clean Energy wind lease (see Tuesday’s Daily News for a follow-up story on this), which he believes creates a conflict of interest for Sweeris. Baldwin also questioned whether a recused planning commissioner should sit at the table during meetings (referring to Paul Olson, who has signed a lease with Apex and has been recused from wind discussions, but who was sitting at the table Wednesday next to Baldwin).
Baldwin asked township attorney Ron Redick to weigh in on all these points.
Redick confirmed that township officials should refrain from deliberating township business via text, email or social media messaging. He said recusal for someone with a father or brother who has signed a wind lease is not required (referring to Sweeris), but he said someone who has signed a lease should not sit at the table during deliberations (referring to Olson).
Jeppesen then asked Olson to step away from the table and into the audience, which Olson did.
Former planning commissioner Cindy Shick then pointed out from the audience that Planning Commission bylaws specify rules for conflict of interest and recusal. She also noted that the Planning Commission previously voted that the only thing they would text each other about would be “check your email, please.”
The Daily News reviewed Planning Commission bylaws as approved in February 2021, which state that a member of the Planning Commission shall disqualify himself or herself from participating in or voting upon a matter in which the member has a conflict of interest. Listed examples of conflict of interest include “if a family member is involved in an application or request before the commission; if the commission member has a business or financial interest in the property involved in an application or request, or in the outcome of the matter at issue; if the commission member has a business or financial interest in the applicant’s company, association or other entity; or if there are other circumstances in which the commission member has a conflict of interest.” The bylaws state the Planning Commission may by majority vote declare a conflict of interest on the part of a planning commissioner.
The Daily News also reviewed Planning Commission meeting minutes from September 2021 which state Redick recommended township officials not text each other to avoid a possible OMA violation. At that same September meeting, the Planning Commission agreed to have their main form of communication be email (without using the reply all option) with texts only to make someone aware of an email.
The attorney then attempted to clarify why he is recommending the Planning Commission recommend to the township board the adoption of a saving clause involving the township’s 2017 wind ordinance which was never properly noticed or adopted (and is arguably not valid).
“I did not do a good job explaining during a very contentious, angry public meeting why it is fair and a good thing for you to include that 2017 saving clause in the ordinance,” Redick said. “The 2017 ordinance is on the books. It is there now. If there is a referendum on the new ordinance, the default is the 2017 ordinance. I think the fastest way to deal with this issue – because you were effectively deprived of the opportunity to seek a referendum on the 2017 ordinance because the notice of adoption was not properly published – if it is readopted as part of the savings clause – meaning that it would only go into effect if there was a referendum on the new ordinance – it would renew your ability to seek a referendum on it. You would have that right that you were deprived of before. I think this is the fairest option.”
The Planning Commission voted 3-1 to recommend the new wind ordinance as drafted to the township board. Sweeris, Pat Althoff and Becky Sowles voted “yes” while Baldwin voted “no” and Jeppesen didn’t vote.
After a lengthy discussion on legal technicalities, the Planning Commission also voted 3-1 to recommend the 2017 ordinance saving clause to the township board (basically recommending that the board conditionally re-adopt the 2017 ordinance), with Baldwin again voting “no.” Redick clarified that if the township board adopts both the new ordinance and the 2017 ordinance, the time for filing a notice of intent for voters to referendum either ordinance would run concurrently with each other. If the new ordinance did not go to a referendum and took effect, it would automatically eliminate the 2017 ordinance.
Baldwin was still troubled by the claim that the 2017 ordinance remains in consideration. Redick said if both ordinances go to a referendum and are voted down, the township could extend its wind moratorium and begin working on yet another wind ordinance.
Sowles asked if the Planning Commission could also vote to recommend that the township board vote to rescind the 2017 ordinance to completely eliminate it. Redick said yes, this would require a public hearing on the topic of the 2017 ordinance (since that ordinance was never properly noticed in 2017) and then the township board could vote on it.
The Planning Commission then voted 4-0 to hold a public hearing on the 2017 ordinance to then recommend that the township board vote to rescind the 2017 ordinance.
The Planning Commission is next scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. on July 27. The public hearing on the 2017 ordinance will take place before that meeting.
The Douglass Township Board is next scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
URL to article: https://www.wind-watch.org/news/2022/05/28/douglass-township-planning-commission-advances-2-wind-ordinances/