Discussion turned into discord in Ellington Township during and after a public meeting Thursday.
It happened during a regularly scheduled Ellington Township Board of Trustees tightly-packed meeting Thursday, when members of the audience questioned the transparency of some board members and the township’s attorney.
Tensions amplified post-meeting when two residents were nearly involved in a physical altercation from a separate incident that allegedly occurred in Caro on Tuesday (see story A1).
The contentious nature of the meeting seemed to originate when Dan Ettinger, attorney with Warner, Norcross & Judd L.L.P. and representing Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C., asked the board questions regarding the company’s special land use permit application and use of $48,000 NextEra deposited in an escrow account for the township as required by ordinance.
The company filed an application for special land use permit (SLUP) in September. NextEra Energy Resources wants to build a $200 million wind turbine project called Tuscola III Wind Energy Center in Ellington, Almer, and Fairgrove townships. It needs the SLUP to proceed further with the project.
“In the name of transparency, which you’re talking about tonight, I hope you can answer some questions for me,” said Ettinger. “The first question I’m hoping you could answer for me is who decided to indefinitely postpone the Dec. 5 public hearing on NextEra’s special land use permit application and how was that decision made because it was not made at the last board meeting somehow, so I’d like to know how?”
Ettinger also asked if the board will still allow the process of NextEra’s special land use permit application and provide itemized accounting of the money from the escrow account.
Township attorney Laura Genovich of Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith, P.C. responded to Ettinger.
“People don’t like it when a new lawyer comes in and starts changing the way things go and when you have that in combination with a new board, (it) can set some frustration,” she said. “What we sometimes run into is when one person might start public comment and suddenly it’s a half-an-hour later the board has gotten into a big debate and people who came to say their piece are put off way into the night. It doesn’t proceed in an orderly way.”
In regard to Ettinger’s comments, Genovich expressed concerns with the framing of information saying it was an attempt to ask questions directly of township board members that are intended to be attached to some kind of court filing. She also told Ettinger to refer to the moratorium in regard to postponement of the SLUP application.
“I’d just like answers to itemization, the money that the township is spending and what they plan to do with that money,” Ettinger responded.
In a special meeting, Nov. 22, Ellington Township passed a one-year moratorium on wind turbine projects (though the board could strike the moratorium any time before that).
Others in the audience addressed board members during public comment as a whole or individually.
One, Duane Lockwood — former township supervisor — said the Nov. 22 meeting was not transparent enough because Trustee Mike Wagner wasn’t informed well enough before the vote to enact a one-year moratorium.
Lockwood’s comments were followed by former township treasurer Diane Wilder who served the board more than 20 years before ousted by Carmell Pattullo in the August primary. Wilder reminded Pattullo of state requirements regarding tax collection office hours.
Wilder continued saying the township has always run legally and documented state mandatory hours, expecting her to comply with the law. She said Ellington Township no longer has an accessible treasurer.
“You should have learned this, you should have done your research,” Wilder said.
Board members then addressed some of the comments made toward them as audience members snickered and sighed.
“As far as me, those who know me know I’m pretty transparent,” said Speirs whose comment was followed by chuckling in the back of the room.
“Does that mean that things are not perfect? I will improve as far as when I learn my role here. I do like some back and forth because things get accomplished that way as long as people are being courteous to one another. The back and forth may stop when someone is threatening to sue me, I will have legal representation speak on my behalf.
“I would like to answer questions when I can, when it’s appropriate, when I understand the answers. If I don’t understand the answer, if I can’t give an answer, that’s not necessarily because of a lack of transparency. It is wisdom in saying, ‘I want to seek to understand what was brought before me’ and give a qualified answer.”
Township Clerk Bobbie Mozden responded to public comments, saying there has been little help since the board transitioned in November.
“There are things we can’t find (looking in the direction of Lockwood and Wilder), there are things we don’t know how to do and luckily we’re intelligent women and we have people at our fingertips as a plus,” said Mozden. “We’re smart, we know how to reach out to our attorneys, we know how to reach out to MTA (Michigan Township Association), to Mike (Wagner) he’s helped us out a lot, Russ has been a fearless leader and trying to help us.
“Have we stumbled, absolutely. But we get back up and we’re here to serve, and we’re here to be as transparent as possible.”
Debanina Seaton is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org