At least one Stark Town Board member and three town Zoning Board of Appeals members have signed leases with the developer behind the Jordanville Wind Project, according to Herkimer County property records.
Stark town officials said they have been paying close attention to these potential conflicts of interest and have followed legal advice to make sure they haven’t done anything wrong.
But officials from the Otsego 2000 residents group have sent a letter to the state Attorney General’s Office asking for an investigation into the practices of the developer of the project — Iberdrola Renewables, Otsego 2000 interim Executive Director Nicole Dillingham said.
Iberdrola Renewables is moving forward with a plan for a project that would include 40 wind turbines in southern Herkimer County, Communications Manager Paul Copleman said.
Dillingham said she is concerned because she believes the company:
* Improperly signed leases with Stark town officials.
* Pressed residents in Stark and Warren to sign leases that include stipulations that restrict residents from talking negatively about the project.
* Were involved with town meetings that resulted in a court decision stating the towns mishandled decisions about the project.
“That to me is really in conflict with home rule,” Dillingham said. “I think they’re taking advantage of these small communities.”
But Stark town officials said they have put great effort into avoiding conflicts of interest and handling the project appropriately.
“We spend more time trying to do that than we do trying to make the decisions themselves,” town Supervisor Richard Bronner said.
The rural town of Stark is just one of many locations in the state where people are questioning whether wind power production companies are inappropriately influencing officials making decisions about potential projects.
Officials in the state Attorney General’s Office are investigating two production companies developing projects in eight counties and have received complaints about additional companies in other counties, office spokesman John Milgrim said. He couldn’t confirm whether complaints were made in Herkimer County or against Iberdrola.
Herkimer County District Attorney John Crandall said he received a complaint regarding a Herkimer County wind project and referred it to Herkimer state police because he doesn’t have an investigative staff.
He wouldn’t be more specific about details of the complaint, and Herkimer state police Investigator Reese Treen said he wasn’t aware of a complaint.
The Stark truth
Town Councilman Thomas Puskarenko signed a lease with the wind company May 4, 2007, according to Herkimer County property records. Town Zoning Board of Appeals members Bruce Banks, Dave Hardy and John Skendara also signed leases with the developer, according to the property records.
Puskarenko, who had no comment, first abstained from a vote related to the wind project Feb. 7, 2006, according to Stark town records. From that point on and even after he signed the lease, he participated in some votes about the project and abstained from others, records show.
He didn’t attend a town meeting May 4, 2007. During that meeting, Bronner read a letter from Puskarenko stating that he wouldn’t participate in any future actions involving the project due to a conflict of interest because he might have a wind turbine constructed on his property, town records show.
Puskarenko has recused himself from all votes related to the project since submitting the letter, records show.
Iberdrola Renewables officials are surprised anyone would continue to question this situation because an Onondaga County Supreme Court decision Dec. 7, 2007, addressed the issue, Copleman said.
Judge Donald’s Greenwood’s decision discusses a claim that Puskarenko failed to disclose a conflict of interest.
“The court has reviewed these contentions and finds them to be without merit,” Greenwood said in his decision.
Iberdrola is not a subject of the Attorney General’s Office investigation, and the company strives to make the development process as transparent as possible with open, public meetings, Copleman said.
“If any transactions involve landowners who are elected or appointed officials related to the project, Iberdrola Renewables requests the recusal of those officials from related decision making,” he said.
‘I see no conflict’
The Zoning Board of Appeals members haven’t faced any conflict of interest concerns because their only authority is when someone files an appeal, member Banks said.
The board meets once per year but hasn’t received any appeals relating to the wind project – and actually hasn’t received any appeals at all during his service, Banks said.
“I see no conflict,” he said. “There’s no plausible conflict there.”
Banks said he would recuse himself if anything related to the wind project ever came before the board.
Hardy and Skendara could not be reached.
Bronner said it can be difficult to avoid potential conflicts of interest when such a large project is proposed in a small town, but he thinks it has been handled properly because officials have followed the advice of people who previously have been through this kind of thing.
It can be tough to even find people to serve on a board in a small town, Bronner said. It’s frustrating when some residents and organizations question their motivations, when they’re attempting to do the right thing.
“What we’re trying to do is what’s best for all the taxpayers – not just a couple who don’t approve of what’s going on,” he said.
‘A great concern’
Dillingham of Otsego 2000 said she knows Puskarenko does recuse himself from votes now.
“But it is a great concern that you have people sitting on the town board who are leaseholders on the project,” she said.
Dillingham also said Iberdrola contracts restrict landowners from speaking against the project and only pay them minimal amounts of money. Landowners receive a $1,000 bonus and $500 per year for five years, then royalties each year going forward, she said.
“It’s really a sad situation, I think, that these kinds of contracts are basically pushed on the communities,” she said. “I blame Iberdrola for this.”
Dillingham also mentioned Greenwood’s December 2007 court decision, which in addition to addressing the potential conflict of interest, resulted in a huge setback for the wind project.
Greenwood ruled the Warren Town Board failed to look closely enough at the project’s potential impact, and that the Warren and Stark town boards acted in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law.
The decision deemed the project’s environmental studies null and void and awarded attorney’s fees to a group of residents who brought the lawsuit.
Steve Reichenbach, one of those residents and the interim president of Advocates for Stark, said he doesn’t think it is right that a town board member with a lease could partake in discussions and decisions about the project.
“I think that’s definitely a conflict of interest,” he said.
Reichenbach wouldn’t say whether he had filed any complaints.
An investigation into other wind companies in the state started in Franklin County, where county District Attorney Derek Champagne received complaints from residents who brought proof of lease-holding town officials voting on projects.
“That obviously was a huge red flag,” Champagne said. “Under general municipal law, that could easily be construed as unethical at a minimum and a crime at maximum.”
There were seven officials in Franklin County who had leases or family members with leases, he said, and complaints eventually came to him from more than 12 counties.
“It’s a problem that essentially is occurring all over the state of New York,” he said.
Concerned with the trend, Champagne began looking into why it was occurring and decided there needs to be a statewide energy policy that helps local towns deal with wind projects, which involve issues far more complicated than their town attorneys are used to dealing with, he said.
The investigation grew too large for Champagne and his staff, so he turned it all over to state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, he said.
On July 15, the Attorney General’s Office announced an investigation into wind power companies First Wind and Noble Environmental Power. Combined, the companies have developed or are developing projects in eight counties.
The announcement states the investigation comes “amid allegations of improper dealings with public officials and anti-competitive practices.”
Cuomo said officials in his office will handle the issue.
“The use of wind power, like all renewable energy sources, should be encouraged to help clean our air and end our reliance on fossil fuels,” Cuomo said in a released statement.
“However, our public integrity remains a top priority of my office and if dirty tricks are used to facilitate even clean-energy projects, my office will put a stop to it.”