by CHRIS ROGERS
Vince Ready lost the election to incumbent Winona County Commissioner Steve Jacob, but the two men will sit side by side on the county Planning Commission for the next two years, at least. Ready lost by a 10-point spread in a race where his support for a ban on frac sand mining — and Jacob’s opposition to it — was front and center. The ban succeeded, however, with the votes of the county’s three urban commissioners, and last week those commissioners nominated Ready and fellow ban supporter Kelley Stanage to the Planning Commission, where they will help shape the future of rural land use policy.
When the County Board sat down last Tuesday to nominate two new appointees to the Planning Commission and three to the Parks and Environment Committee, the board members had a slew of well-qualified applicants to pick from, including numerous candidates with a demonstrated commitment to environmental stewardship, as well as several with business and agricultural credentials. It was a good problem to have, the County Board members agreed, to have so many well-qualified volunteers. “We had an overload of people who could have served,” commissioner Marie Kovecsi said in an interview last week. Eleven people applied for the parks committee; 13 for the Planning Commission. When they cast their votes via note-paper ballots — without any public discussion of their preferences beforehand — the three members of the majority made identical choices.
Urban commissioners Jim Pomeroy, Greg Olson, and Kovecsi all voted for the exact same applicants in the exact same order for both committees. The three commissioners voted for Stanage and Ready for the Planning Commission, in that order. For the Parks and Environment Committee, Kovecsi, Pomeroy, and Olson simultaneously wrote down the same three names in the same order: Maryann Frietsche, Lynnea Pfohl, and Cindy Samples.
Did Kovecsi, Pomeroy, and Olson talk, outside public meetings, about whom to nominate? “No, we can’t. You know that,” Kovecsi responded. “No,” Pomeroy stated in a separate interview yesterday. “I did not discuss those appointments with anyone,” he stated. Both Pomeroy and Kovecsi explained that, until interviewed by the Winona Post, they did not know how their fellow County Board members voted.
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law generally prohibits any quorum — a majority — of any government body from discussing public business outside an open, public meeting.
Rural commissioners Marcia Ward and Jacob also cast ballots for the same candidates in the same order without public discussion beforehand, though their choices differed from the urban commissioners. Jacob and Ward voted to nominate Knitcraft Vice President Dennis Meyer and dairy farmer Margaret Gernes to the Planning Commission.
Except for their own preference, nothing requires County Board members to use written ballots to select appointees, as opposed to the normal County Board decision-making process: oral discussion and oral voting.
The nominees were formally appointed yesterday. With the addition of Stanage and Ready to the nine-member Planning Commission, there will still be a five-person majority of members who voted against the frac sand ban this fall and who, on controversial decisions, have often supported landowners’ rights to use property. The Planning Commission conducts in-depth review of permits and zoning ordinance changes before making recommendations to the County Board, but final decisions are up to the elected board.
Stanage was an outspoken opponent of frac sand mining in Houston County before moving to Winona County’s Wiscoy Township. Ready is a neighbor to the county’s only permitted frac sand mine in Saratoga Township.