by CHRIS ROGERS
Long-time Houston County Planning Commission member Glenn Kruse resigned this week amid concerns that the Houston County Board's December 2015 decision to reappoint him was invalid under state law and county ordinance because he is a county employee.
Deciding how to regulate frac sand mining has divided Houston County in recent years, and since the County Board voted 3-2 to pick Kruse over several frac sand opponents who also applied for a seat on the Planning Commission, citizens and elected commissioners who oppose sand mining have raised concerns over Kruse's eligibility. Houston County Board Chair Judy Storlie described the problem with Kruse's reappointment as an honest mistake that has been corrected. Area resident Kelley Stanage argued someone should have known better.
It appears that Kruse was indeed ineligible to serve on the Planning Commission. Kruse works for the county part-time, supervising county recycling collection sites or drop sites. Under both state law and the Houston County Zoning Ordinance, "No more than one voting member of the [Planning] Commission shall be an officer or employee of the county." In Houston County, like many other Minnesota counties, one of the County Board members — Dana Kjome — serves on the Planning Commission. Kjome counts as the one "officer or employee of the county" permitted under state law. Kruse made two — until he resigned Monday.
Storlie and fellow County Board members Steve Schuldt and Teresa Walter had already received criticism for reappointing Kruse. Commissioners Dana Kjome and Justin Zymweski voted against Kruse's appointment because Kruse had already exceeded the county's recommended term limit of nine years on the commission. However, new information came to light last month, when Stanage made a data request, discovered that Kruse worked for the county, and researched state and local laws that limit county employees from serving on the Planning Commission.
When asked whether Kruse was ineligible because of his job as a drop-site supervisor, Storlie responded, "It was an oversight. It wasn't intentional. It was an oversight and now it's corrected."
Storlie, Schuldt, and County Attorney Sam Jandt served on a committee that reviewed the applications of would-be Planning Commission members — Kruse's application included information about his job as a drop-site supervisor — and which recommended Kruse's reappointment to the Planning Commission to the full County Board. She said that she and the other committee members simply were not aware of the rule against having two county officials or employees on the Planning Commission. "It was a complete oversight that was caught by the public and now it's taken care of. It's not a big story anymore," she said.
Stanage thinks it is a big story. "It's not a particularly influential job and it doesn't wield a lot of authority but it pays him a check," Stanage said when asked whether it really mattered that Kruse worked part-time for the recycling program. "Having him rely on department head Rick Frank for that check, for that money and then playing kind of a supervisory role over Rick Frank's department area … that's just a little bit too cozy. I don't care if it's a lot of money or a little money. It was improper. There was a reason most counties separate duties so as to not create those awkward relationships." Frank is the Houston County Environmental Services Director. He oversees the recycling program and reports to the Planning Commission on zoning issues.
Someone at the county — either Frank or the County Board — should have known better, Stanage stated. "Don't let anybody say, 'Well maybe he just overlooked it.' Somebody is supposed to know.
Whose responsibility is it to make sure that we are following the laws in each of our departments?"
"It should have been someone's responsibility," Storlie agreed. "OK, but let's move forward. The zoning ordinance has been in effect for how many years; we've never had this issue. Instead of looking back and saying who's to blame, let's look forward and see what we can do to improve things."
Stanage is no longer a Houston County citizen; she recently moved to Winona County. Other Houston County residents, including several outspoken frac sand opponents, have leveled criticisms that there are broader problems with transparency and trust in Houston County government. Stanage pointed to an incident in which former Houston County Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan allegedly retaliated against a citizen who criticized him by complaining to the citizen's employer via email. Citizens filed ethics complaints against Scanlan, the County Board hired an outside law firm to review Scanlan's conduct, and the board disciplined Scanlan. He later resigned.
Some citizens have filed ethics complaints with the Houston County Personnel Office over Kruse's appointment, too. Complaints were reportedly filed against the County Board members who supported his appointment and against Frank for not ensuring that rules on the eligibility of Planning Commission members were followed.
"It's really easy for people to throw accusations out there," Storlie said. "There shouldn't be the things that are going on — the accusations constantly, this negative flow of information … It's time to take our energies and go forward in a more positive way," she stated. Storlie praised Kruse's many years of service to the county. "He, once again, did the right thing when it was pointed out," she continued. "He's a good guy. He's very honest and I would hate to see his reputation tarnished at all by this."
Kruse and Frank could not be reached for comment before the Winona Post went to press. Kruse continues to serve as a Houston County Board of Adjustment member. The County Board is expected to appoint someone to the Planning Commission to replace him.
The state law governing Planning Commission membership is Minnesota Statutes Section 394.29 subdivision 1. The same language is in section 0110.1101 of the Houston County's Zoning Ordinance.