by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County Board members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward aren’t giving up their push to eliminate the county’s animal-unit cap. Although the County Board majority voted down any changes to the cap this spring, Jacob keeps bringing the issue up. One of the central issues now: Is the County Board even supposed to be talking about this?
Winona County’s animal-unit cap restricts the size of livestock farms by limiting feedlots to no more than 1,500 animal units (1,071 cows). The cap is at the center of a lawsuit the county now faces from the Daley Farm of Lewiston. The Daley family’s request to expand their dairy farm in excess of the cap was rejected by the county in February. They sued, claiming the county’s decision was unfairly biased.
As is typical, the county’s legal advisors cautioned the County Board against discussing the Daley case until the lawsuit is resolved. Talking about the subject of the lawsuit could get their clients in more trouble. But what about talking about the animal unit cap?
Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman advised the board not to discuss the Daley case in particular or the animal unit cap in general, saying a discussion of the cap could spill over to the specific Daley case. The animal unit cap matters to farmers and constituents other than the Daleys and it’s too important of an issue to drop, Jacob argued earlier year, adding, “Attorney Sonneman’s opinion doesn’t stop democracy from happening.” During the same debate, Jacob also brought up the Daley case — exactly the kind of spill over Sonneman was concerned about.
When Jacob and Ward initiated a discussion about the animal-unit cap in June, County Board Chair Marie Kovecsi quoted from a letter from the attorney representing the county in the Daley case, Paul Reuvers: “Our lawyer has provided us with a letter specifically saying, ‘It would be prudent to refrain from engaging that discussion while this litigation is pending …’”
Responding to Jacob’s offer last month to support a tax increase if other board members would allow the economy to grow by eliminating the animal unit cap, County Board member Greg Olson said in an interview, “I’m not going to play these Washington, D.C., games by compromising my opinion on something we shouldn’t even be discussing.”
Jacob has accused other County Board members of using the lawsuit and Sonneman’s advice as a shield to avoid talking about the animal unit cap.
Asked if Jacob was putting the county at legal risk by bringing up the animal unit cap, Sonneman said, “I would just say that I will continue advising them from writing or making any comments about animal unit caps while the litigation is still pending.” She added, “[County Board members] are free to speak how they want to. I can give them advice. They’re free to take it or not.”
‘If you stay away from the actual case, that’s OK’
The question of whether the County Board can discuss the animal unit cap came up again during a recent closed session, when the board met with Reuvers in private. According to county administrator Ken Fritz, Reuvers and his colleagues gave the County Board slightly different advice at that meeting. “[The attorneys] said if you stay away from the actual case, that’s OK. If you’re discussing policy, if you’re discussing the [agricultural] census and how it might affect agricultural policy, that’s OK … Now, he did warn, that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t slip off and start discussing the Daley case.” Fritz reported that Reuvers simultaneously cautioned, “It’d be good if you didn’t discuss it at all.”
Following that meeting, Jacob recently told the Post, “I’ve received legal advice that I can discuss policy.” Jacob said he had been advised — or interpreted advice to mean — that he can discuss the animal unit cap generally.
Conversely, Olson maintained that Reuvers advised the board against discussing the animal unit cap.
Kovecsi said of Fritz’s summary of Reuvers advice, “That’s pretty accurate.” However, her interpretation of the conversation’s bottomline differed from Jacob’s. “He did say, ‘Don’t talk about the animal unit cap and people kept pressing him,” Kovecsi recalled. “Finally, he said, ‘Well, it’s really not wise to talk about it. To my mind, he was splitting hairs. He wasn’t really giving us a green light. So that’s an interpretation.”
Kovecsi: the board already discussed this
Late last month, Jacob offered one more time to join Kovecsi, Olson, and commissioner Chris Meyer in supporting a 4.3-percent tax increase, if they would support changing the animal unit cap. “If anyone is willing to look at freeing up our economy, removing the animal unit cap, and letting the dairy industry grow, I would support the 4.3 [-percent increase],” he stated.
No one responded.
In an interview, Kovecsi said three things were going through her head when Jacob brought up the animal unit cap. First, she expressed concern over the horse trading Jacob proposed. “We’re not ready to trade votes,” she stated. Second, the county’s attorneys had cautioned the board against this sort of discussion, Kovesci said. Third, the County Board did discuss the animal unit cap this spring and voted 2-3 against considering changes to it, she said. At that time, the board majority cited concerns from small farmers and environmentalists whom they said supported the cap. Pointing to a County Board policy not to discuss issues that have already been decided twice in one year unless there is new information, Kovecsi added, “So unless there’s something new or innovating about another discussion, it really has to wait a year according to our guidelines. [Jacob] wishes we could talk about it. OK, that’s fine.”
“I guess I’m being a little bit more realistic about what’s the will of the County Board,” Jacob said in a recent interview. “They’ve made it very clear they don’t want to talk about it. I’m doing everything I can just to crack that egg any way I can, to not shut the door on the discussion.”