INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- One state lawmaker is making his last-ditch effort to address one of his constituents’ most pressing concerns.
For nearly a year, some people living in representative Tom Saunders’ district counties have begged him to do something about what they say is unethical behavior in wind energy-related decisions.
In response, he introduced a bill at the start of the legislative session.
“I think there’s some transparency issues,” said Saunders. “I can understand why the constituents I represent have some concerns.”
The wind farm bill was intended to introduce a myriad of concerns about wind development, including the distance a turbine sits from a non-participating house. One of the most important pieces, was an ethics policy meant to prevent what Saunders called “questionable” behavior by some Henry County officials.
“I’ve been privy to some emails that have been requested from local elected and appointed officials who have had some questionable contact back and forth with the wind turbine people,” said Saunders.
If the ethics policy in Saunders’ bill does make it into a final hour amendment, it would give the state Attorney General’s office a new power. They could investigate conflict of interest violations by wind companies and officials.
But Saunders is running out of time to even make the ethics portion of the bill law.
With the legislative session wrapping up, the only option is for the conference committee for the budget bill to decide to add the ethics policy as an amendment.
So far, there have been no indication that will happen, although Saunders pitched his amendment to conferee and House Ways and Means committee chair Tim Brown.
That concerns some residents who feel at least one elected and appointed official haven’t been transparent.
Their concern grew after reading emails obtained through a records request.
Just last week, Melissa Elmore and other Henry County residents confronted county commissioners with some of those emails.
“The whole point was to say to him, here is a map that has your wife’s name on it, here is an email, here are the policies,” said Melissa Elmore, who filed the initial FOIA request. “This is why we have continually talked about this conflict of interest.”
They read aloud two email threads they felt represented their fight.
In one thread, Olene Veach, a planning commissioner who votes on wind issues, states she “might be interested” in leasing her farm for a turbine.
In response, a former county administrator tells her “Ed had to recuse on NextEra because he had a tentative agreement with them”.
Ed here, refers to Ed Yanos, a county and planning commissioner.
An email earlier in the year also states Yanos’ “wife owns property with a turbine sited on it”.
Yanos says the writer of the emails was mistaken.
But a map submitted by NextEra to the county, also shows his wife’s property as an alternate site for a turbine.
Yanos says that map is wrong too.
At the public meeting and today, Yanos still denies he or his wife have ever been interested in leasing their land for wind turbines.
But his opponents aren’t buying it, partly because of this response Yanos gave to their concerns at that public meeting last week. Watch the video here:
Neither Veach nor Yanos immediately disclosed any potential conflicts of interest, that they had communicated with or been approached by wind companies about turbines on their land.
According to the State Board of Accounts website, there is no conflict of interest filed for Veach.
Yanos didn’t file a conflict of interest until nearly a year after the emails that state his wife had a tentative agreement for her property.
Saunders' policy would lay out more exacting guidelines for when those disclosures need to be made for officials making wind energy decisions.
“If you have the opportunity to get a wind turbine on your property or your wife does or your brother or your father, are you acting in the best interests of your constituents or are you looking out for your own financial gain?” questioned Saunders.