CARO – Residents of Ellington Township planned last night to ask township Supervisor Duane Lockwood to recuse himself from any further decisions regarding wind turbines in the community – and have threatened to file a lawsuit if it doesn’t happen.
At 4:40 p.m. Tuesday, Lockwood told The Advertiser that the meeting wouldn’t be cancelled, despite Michigan’s Thumb region being under a winter storm warning and most of the area shut down for safety in light of a snowstorm projected mid-afternoon to drop up to 12 inches of snow. The meeting was held after press time.
Tuscola County Offices closed for today at 3 p.m. Tuesday and several schools already cancelled class for today around 5 p.m. Tuesday
Mike Patullo, an Ellington Township resident who has been vocal about Ellington Township’s wind turbine ordinances, said either he or one of the other residents planning to attend would ask Lockwood to no longer be involved in decisions regarding wind turbines because Lockwood has leased property to NextEra Energy Resources Inc.
NextEra is planning to build its next wind farm in Tuscola County – Tuscola III – in Ellington, Almer, and Fairgrove townships.
Lockwood confirmed having agreed to lease property to The Advertiser Monday.
“I have leases and that’s my own business,” Lockwood said.
Patullo said Lockwood should have made it clear long ago that he would make money by leasing land to NextEra – and he should have made it clear before being involved in changing Ellington Township ordinances with regard to wind turbine noise and setbacks, as was done last year.
“To do the right thing in my mind, he needs to recuse himself from anything to do with wind turbines – voting, discussions, public comment, anything,” Patullo said.
Lockwood contends his roles as lessor and supervisor are two separate things.
He told The Advertiser Monday that any contact he has had with anyone from NextEra since 2013 has been limited to short, one-sentence responses over the phone.
“They call me up and say ‘Can I get on the agenda?’ and that’s it,” Lockwood said.
Lockwood says there are zero written communications – including anything written via email, facsimile machine, or mail delivered via U.S. Postal Service or other delivery service – between him and NextEra Energy Resources during the years 2013-2016.
As a result, Lockwood denied a request from The Advertiser through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act for any communications relating to the project, stating that “no document by that name or with that information exists.”
However, minutes from past planning commission and regular board meetings in Ellington Township suggest communications between Lockwood and NextEra may have been more than one sentence long, said Patullo.
“That sounds kind of surprising to me,” Patullo said. “You can see where he has been basically the spokesman for NextEra at all of the Ellington Township meetings. He came in and updated both the regular board and planning commission several times on what was going on.”
The Advertiser has obtained minutes obtained through another FOIA to all Ellington Township board and planning commission meetings going back to 2013.
During the Feb. 5, 2015, regular Ellington Township board meeting, official minutes say, “Duane Lockwood stated it will be March before we see any site plans for the wind turbines. Escrow account needs to be setup with the Township in the amount of $50,000 for the permits.”
Minutes from the Dec. 8, 2015, Ellington Township board meeting read:
“Duane Lockwood gave an update on the wind farm. There will be no meeting in December for a general meeting for the public. Dave Hollander has met with all property owners, who are on the proposed sites of the windmills. Nextera (sic) is working one(sic) driveway issues, finishing up on substation. Nextera is shooting for a late January meeting open to the public. Nextera estimates up (to) 20 windmills in the Ellington Township. Duane Lockwood explained the process to the audience.”
Patullo said there aren’t any references to Lockwood identifying himself as a lessor or potential lessor to NextEra in any of the minutes dating back to 2013.
“We think that someone who has a conflict of interest shouldn’t be in that position,” Patullo said. “We think it’s blocking our due process.
“Our intention is to ask him to recuse himself because we think it’s blocking our due process,” Patullo said. “We’re giving him one more chance before we make a big deal out of it.
“We’re trying to do the right thing here without it getting really bad but we’re running out of options here.”
Joshua Nolan, an attorney representing the non-participating Ellington Township residents, said during a Feb. 17 meeting that legal action could be in the works in light of what some view as a conflict of interest.
“We’ve heard tonight about a conflict of interest and Mr. Lockwood, it’s my understanding that you signed your lease in September of 2014,” Nolan said. “You took that action with a conflict of interest … and that is a valid basis to overturn the action taken by the township … if you grant them (NextEra) a permit, your citizens will file a lawsuit.”
After dropping his denial of The Advertiser’s FOIA request off in person – and confirming he has agreed to lease land to NextEra – Monday, Lockwood left the office saying “no comment, no comment.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Tuscola County Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org