MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – Richard Karnatz met his planners for the first time in seven months and wasted little time addressing concerns and allegations from some community residents.
As chairman of the Montcalm Township Planning Commission, Karnatz began the virtual meeting on Wednesday with a statement focusing on allegations that he had a conflict of interest over the planning commission’s efforts to amend the town’s wind energy ordinance and should again back off certain discussions and votes on this topic.
“We’ll get something out of the way immediately,” said Karnatz. “There was a lot of stuff on Facebook that the newspaper – as you call it – was mostly about wind energy and conflicts of interest. Just to improve the record, I signed a lease. ”
On August 5, 2020, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the review and amendment of the community’s wind regulation after Apex Clean Energy, a wind energy company based in Charlottesville, Virginia, expressed interest in Montcalm County to host its next potential commercial wind farm.
Earlier this year, Karnatz signed a development-phase lease with Apex that pays owners an undefined amount per acre annually.
Upon hearing this revelation during the Montcalm Township Board meeting on November 11, 2020, some residents expressed disappointment with the situation, spoke at previous meetings, and emailed Karnatz to raise a conflict of interest.
On Wednesday, Karnatz reiterated his stance that he currently has no conflict of interest.
“We should give this company a chance”
Karnatz said his decision to sign a lease with Apex dates back to March 2019 during a meeting at Montcalm Community College when representatives from Consumers Energy and Gratiot County held a forum on wind energy.
Karnatz said the meeting made it clear to him that due to federal mandates and a growing reliance on renewable energy, wind turbines could potentially find their way into Montcalm County.
Not long after, Karnatz said he was contacted by NextEra Energy Inc., a wind energy company based in Juno Beach, Florida, that considers Montcalm County a potential wind turbine location.
“I went to another meeting and to be honest these people weren’t that believable or reliable,” said Karnatz of NextEra. “They decided to pull up and leave. At the time, in Montcalm County, my opinion was that because of the size and topography of the county, wind power would never be created. “
However, Karnatz said his decision changed after he, his son and “several other farmers” were contacted by Apex in the fall of 2019.
“We looked at this (their suggestion) and knew what was going on in this financial community. We decided to give this company a chance to make it work,” he said. “If it works, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine from my point of view. “
Karnatz said his decision to sign was not related to himself, but rather to a desire to potentially bring additional tax revenue to the community and county of Montcalm through a commercial wind farm.
“The long story is that the county and townships can put some cash in their coffers and help pay some bills,” he said.
Pointing out the fire that destroyed LKQ’s Keystone Automotive plant and warehouse in December 2019, Karnatz described it as a significant loss to the community as a source of tax revenue that is unlikely to be replaced.
“That was a lot of tax dollars that are gone now,” he said. “It will not be rebuilt. It’s for sale … the property. ”
With township projects pending, including the need to rebuild the deteriorating bridge on W. Dickerson Lake Road across the Flat River – which is estimated to cost an estimated $ 100,000 or more in township funding – and an existing millage to fund the The fire brigade needed expenses to be used for a Karnatz said he believes the residents are already being taxed enough by the community.
“Another company coming in and expanding the tax roles can help pay for some of those things,” he said. “Then we don’t have to add a millage and levy more taxes on some lower-income people who may find it difficult to pay their taxes.
“But I’m not here to sell you to turbines, that’s not my job. I’m just telling you why we signed a lease to introduce everyone,” he continued. “If other people can tell me how we can get this kind of money into the county and townships, I’ll be all for it, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest anything.”
‘I have no conflict from Interest in this point ‘
Karnatz then moved on to the first item on the meeting’s agenda in the area of new business – a review of the statutes of the planning commission.
Karnatz said the item was put on the agenda because of the allegations against him.
“There was talk of a conflict of interest preventing me from being part of it,” he said. “Until now I have no legal conflict of interest.”
Doug Crowley, Montcalm township supervisor, had previously asked the community attorney, Jeffrey Sluggett of Bloom Sluggett PC in Grand Rapids, to consider the matter, and Karnatz quoted Sluggett’s opinion directly.
“You have all seen the answer that came back from him and he also supports my interpretation,” said Karnatz to his fellow Commissioners.
According to Sluggett’s email to Crowley, Karnatz has yet to put himself in what he would describe as a conflict of interest.
Sluggett said the problem is handling a legislature versus an administrative matter.
“For a legislative matter (legislation), the courts do not require a civil servant to avoid attending because of a financial interest alone; rather, in an administrative (governing law) matter, the civil servant must avoid attending if he has a financial interest,” Sluggett said. “Here, changing a zoning ordinance is legislative. As such, having a financial interest in a matter does not necessarily mean that the person has to reuse himself. Instead, the question arises whether it is a legislative matter, whether the official is his fiduciary Duty to put the interests of the community before his or her own personal interests. If he or she can, the person is not legally prohibited from participating or voting. “
Sluggett went on to say that if the problem becomes an administrative matter, Karnatz should recycle himself.
Should a proposed amendment to the Wind Ordinance ultimately be approved by the planning commission and then by the local government, Karnatz said he would apply to build wind turbines in the community in the event a company he has signed a lease with to withdraw.
“I still have concerns”
During a public comment, community resident Richelle Lentz said while appreciating Karnatz’s statement she was still having issues with what happened last summer when the planning committee received feedback from Apex via email when they received the Wind regulation checked.
“While I appreciate your addressing this today, I still have concerns that the plan (commission) was not brought to the attention of the plan (commission) prior to the recommendations emailed by Apex in August,” she said. “Is there a reason that the planning (Commission) has not been addressed or made aware of? As it is clearly stated in the statutes, it is the responsibility of the planning (commission) to examine potential conflicts of interest and to conduct a discussion. ”
Lentz speculated that if the lease information had been provided, further questions about Apex’s involvement might have been asked.
Karnatz defended his decision not to disclose his lease with his fellow commissioners at the time.
“Number one, it wasn’t a legal conflict of interest,” he said. “If you have read the minutes (of the meeting), in one way or another I did not say a word about anything that was included in the amendment (for a regulation). If anyone else on the planning committee has a different opinion, please tell me because I didn’t think I said anything. ”
No other commissioner raised concerns in one way or another on Wednesday.