(The following article was originally published by The Rochester Sentinel of Rochester, Indiana on Monday, March 19, 2018.)
BY WESLEY DEHNE
Staff Writer, The Sentinel
Allegations of collusion have surfaced against two Fulton County officials following requests of public records related to a wind farm proposal.
The claims are against Commissioner Steve Metzger and Area Plan Director Casi Cowles and were detailed to The Sentinel by a concerned citizen who wishes to remain anonymous.
Cowles and Metzger were at one time in direct contact with representatives of RES, an international renewable energy company interested in developing Harvest Wind Energy LLC wind farm.
The project would have brought more than 130 wind turbines to Wayne, Liberty, Union and Rochester townships in Fulton County. However, the project was brought to a halt in Fulton County after Commissioners Bryan Lewis and Rick Ranstead signed a resolution in December 2017 that prohibits commercial wind turbines in the county.
That resolution went into effect in mid-January, when Lewis and Ranstead also signed a pledge stating that as long as they hold public office they will not allow commercial wind turbines in the county. Metzger, who is an advocate for RES’ project, did not sign the pledge or participate in signing the resolution.
In November 2017 Metzger recused himself from voting on proposed amendments to a section of the county’s zoning ordinance that governs wind energy conversion systems, or WECS. He cited “perceived conflicts of interest” as the reason, noting opponents of the RES’ Harvest Wind Energy project have been critical that his accountant and friend, Matt Berry, is employed by RES and that his wife’s side of the family could have potentially benefited from the project.
Metzger’s recusal also meant he could not discuss or make any decisions related to RES’ project. By recusing himself, he avoided an initial request from a citizen to turn over emails, phone records and texts related to WECS. However, Akron resident Chuck Shane submitted a second request for Metzger’s public records in December 2017.
One claim that surfaced from a review of those records is that Metzger, prior to his recusal, helped Berry get landowners to sign lease agreements for the wind farm. Text messages retrieved from Metzger’s personal cellphone show the two discussed Kerry and Kurt Newman, Seth White, Arnold Brandt and Jay Masteller and their potential for signing a lease agreement.
“I pretty much did,” Metzger said when asked if he was helping Berry to sign landowners. “I never went with him anywhere. He’d ask me these vague questions, so I guess you could say I was giving him information – nothing to compromise the county.”
Metzger said the information he provided Berry was “nothing out of line.”
He has been criticized for providing Berry a map showing how most farmers in Wayne Township were opposed to RES’ project. Metzger told The Sentinel he did provide the map to Berry, noting it was presented at a public meeting and is public information.
He did, however, deny speculation that he tried to convince his father-inlaw and grandmother-inlaw to sign a lease agreement.
“I made it a point not to talk to any of them,” he said. “It’s none of my business. If they want to do it, they do it.”
Metzger told The Sentinel that another claim by the anonymous source, that he allegedly sent Berry to talk to Brad Boldry about a lease agreement, is a blatant lie.
Metzger admitted texting Miami County Commissioner Josh Francis, who is also on RES’ payroll, a “play-byplay” of meetings taking place in Fulton County.
“He’d give us a play-byplay of what’s going on down there,” Metzger said of Francis, adding that Miami County is also discussing regulations that would pertain to RES’ project.
Metzger’s text messages show he also was identifying opposition in the crowd and felt more vocal support for RES’ project was needed in Fulton County. In a text to Francis, he wishes him good luck for an upcoming meeting and comments that the “crazies” are coming his way. When asked who he was referring to, Metzger said, “I hate to say it, but the anti-wind people that make up all this fearmongering.”
He went on to say there’s no proof that wind turbines are detrimental to people’s health.
“One side says they’d be, one side doesn’t,” he said. “There’s not a long list of people at a hospital because of turbines.”
Another concern is that Metzger did not release emails sent to his personal email account. In a response to Shane’s request, Fulton County Attorney Greg Heller states, “Metzger informs me that any information regarding the proposed wind project would be contained on his county email account and not on his personal email account.”
A public records request of Plan Director Cowles has revealed that at least a dozen emails pertaining to wind energy development have been sent to Metzger’s personal email address. When asked about those emails, which are subject to the public records request, Metzger said he was unaware they were coming to his personal email account.
“I haven’t even checked it,” he said, adding that it’s basically a dead account. “I’ve got like 1,200 emails I’ve never even looked at on that account.” He said his failure to release such emails was an oversight by him and Heller. “I’ll be glad to give any other pertinent information on further request,” he said.
Metzger denied any conflicts of interest and maintains he has nothing to hide. He said he had the county’s best interest in mind. “If somebody wants to bring a 1.6-billion- dollar project to the area, don’t you think the commissioners ought to try to help?”
“I don’t know why a commissioner can’t be for something good for the county and look into it. I feel like I got massacred for that,” he said. “I just think I was new, they saw me as weak and prowind, so they were coming after me … ” Metzger said he believes commissioners would still be going through the process with RES had he not recused himself.
“I think there’s something that changed the other commissioners’ minds, and I don’t know what it was. Cause at first, we were all on board,” he said. “We still never even got the whole details of what it was going to entail.”
When questioned about speculation that RES might file a lawsuit against Fulton County to get its project into the area, Metzger said: “Well, if we had an ordinance for 10 years before and it was legal and you could sign up, they’re thinking we’re open for business, and then you pull the plug halfway through it. I think they have a legal right to.”
There is concern among opponents of the wind farm project that RES may still have Fulton County on its radar, due to the Federal Aviation Administration receiving 436 aeronautical studies for wind turbines located north of Grissom Air Force Base in Miami, Cass and Fulton counties. RES reportedly submitted the wind turbines for aeronautical study on Feb. 9 – well after county commissioners took action to prohibit commercial wind turbines in the county.
“I’d say that’s been in the works from the beginning, and they’re just now getting around to it,” Metzger said of the FAA request.
He said he doesn’t know if the company is still operating in Fulton County and has “made it a point” to no longer discuss the project with Berry. “I know he’s working for RES, but I don’t know if they’re doing anything.”
Calls to Brad Lila, director of development for RES, were not returned.
‘We still never even got the whole details of what it was going to entail.’ ‘… so I guess you could say I was giving him information – nothing to compromise the county.’