(The following was originally published in The Rochester Sentinel of Rochester, IN on Friday, November 17, 2017.)
BY WESLEY DEHNE
Staff Writer, The Sentinel
AND CHRISTINA M. SEILER
Managing Editor, The Sentinel
Fulton County Commissioner Steve Metzger told The Sentinel Thursday he will recuse himself from any future county business related to wind energy development.
The reason, he said, was because of “perceived conflicts of interest.” He denied any actual conflicts of interest pertaining to RES’ proposal to develop a wind farm in the county.
“Perception matters sometimes more than facts,” he said. “I think I probably should have done it earlier.”
He said he’s received direct criticism that his financial adviser is employed by RES and that his wife’s side of the family could potentially benefit from the project.
Metzger lives at 831 E. 650 South, which is within the area targeted by RES for as many as 133 wind turbines and $5.9 million in investment.
Prior to the Nov. 9 wind energy public forum hosted by commissioners at the Fulton Community Building, Metzger said he and his wife rent the home where they live. It is owned by her grandmother, he said.
When asked by The Sentinel if he would benefit financially through potential inheritance of that land because of the project, Metzger scoffed at the question. He said he does not know the details of his grandmother-in-law’s will.
Metzger said his relationship with Matt Berry, his financial adviser and a land acquisition manager for RES, was established well before the project was proposed.
“They just think I’m trying to get this wind farm project in for the benefit of my family or my wife’s family,” he said of opponents to the proposed project. “Links to corruption are being thrown up, and there is none. … I think they’re just trying anything they can at this point.”
He did note that his in-laws, who own land in the proposed project area, were contacted by RES to lease land. He said he is unsure if they signed a contract, adding “that’s none of my business.”
He also said some have been critical about his wife’s cousin putting up a MET tower as part of RES’ project.
“I’m not getting paid by anyone except the county,” Metzger said.
He’s been instructed by Fulton County Attorney Greg Heller not to participate in Monday’s public hearing, in which commissioners will discuss proposed amendments to the county’s commercial wind energy zoning ordinance. That public hearing will take place after commissioners’ 6 p.m. meeting in the Community Building at the Fulton County 4-H Fairgrounds.
Metzger is also not to discuss the ordinance or RES’ proposed project with commissioners Bryan Lewis and Rick Ranstead.
Prior to announcing his recusal, Metzger was challenged by Lynn Studebaker to provide all documents, copies of emails and phone records related to wind energy conversion projects in the county. Metzger’s personal email address and phone were included in the request.
“I didn’t think it was worth fighting it,” Metzger said of the request. “When they start saying civil suits and stuff like that, it’s just not worth it.”
Metzger added that he didn’t want to disclose private information.
“I have no vendetta against him,” said Studebaker, adding she simply speculated there may have been a conflict of interest. “I did not request any conversations that were personal.”
She told The Sentinel her request included Metzger’s personal email address because she learned from a second public records request of Fulton County Area Plan Director Casi Cowles that he was receiving information on county business in that manner.
“I really did not feel comfortable with him voting on this issue,” Studebaker said.
Metzger denied using his personal email for county business but said he would use his personal cellphone to check emails when away from the office.
Lewis and Cowles
Lewis and Cowles also have been asked about potential conflicts of interest.
Lewis’ father, Bill, owns and operates Lewis Backhoe, an excavating contractor. Should a wind farm gain approval from county officials, there will be excavating required for road, culvert and drainage building or repair.
Lewis thanked The Sentinel for the question and said he did not believe there would be much, if any, benefit to his father because much of the work Lewis Backhoe does now involves directional boring, or cutting trenches for conduit and small pipes.
A citizen called Cowles out because there was reaction from her Facebook page to calls from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 to get members to attend public meetings pertaining to the wind rules and project.
“This is a strong conflict of interest,” the woman said over the telephone. She would not give her name.
Two posts by James Gardner, the Local 150 business representative, were liked by the Facebook account Troy and Casi Cowles.
“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Cowles said Thursday. “I rarely get on Facebook.” They do, she said, share an account.
“My husband is in the Local 150. He’s been in the local 150 for many years,” Cowles said. “He’s allowed to express his opinion. Some families don’t allow their members to voice their individual opinions. In my family, that’s OK.”
Cowles said there will not come a time where she will give a recommendation to county officials about how they should vote on the zoning regulations pertaining to wind power or on approving a wind farm.
It’s not her job to recommend, she said, only to prepare the information officials need to make an educated vote. “I think it’s more important to focus on the facts,” Cowles said.