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County Attorney acting like a commissioner (05/06/2007)
By John Edstrom

The transfer of the Winona County parking lot to its neighbor on Johnson Street, the Winona County Historical Society, looks as if it is finally going to go forward. The lot at present provides parking for the old Wells Fargo Bank building, which now houses Winona County offices. It is needed by the Historical Society in order for it to take advantage of a $1.5 million challenge grant from the Laird Norton Company which will be used to complete a $3 million expansion of the Society's offices and museum on Johnson Street. It shouldn't require pointing out that the project will benefit the entire county as an expanded museum, as well as a very lively tourist attraction, all while requiring next to nothing in the way of tax dollars.

A deal was in place for the Winona Port Authority to replace the Johnson St. parking with equivalent parking across the street in the Chrysler Winona location so that the county would be compensated, but at the last moment, County Attorney Chuck MacLean announced that it would be illegal for the county to make a gift of property to a "small special interest group" like the Historical Society. The city promptly produced an opinion from the firm of Briggs and Morgan, which specializes in such matters for government entities, which stated quite flatly that there would be no such legal problem.

MacLean fired back that the B&M opinion was a very poorly researched letter from a "hired gun...that's all we have." One wonders what in this issue would generate such heat as to suspend professional courtesy, particularly from an attorney who is out on a limb with a very dubious, even benighted opinion, as stated in a letter to the city, that the County Historical Society is a special interest group whose activities may have some benefit to Winona proper, but hardly any to the rest of the county.

Now the parking lot is to be transferred to the county's Economic Development Authority which has been instructed to accept no less than its assessed value. (A lot of nonsense to address what was no more than a legal quibble in the first place, in our opinion.) Still this is not enough to mollify MacLean, who seems to ally himself with Marcia Ward, the one commissioner who voted against the arrangement. He entered into a rather lengthy debate on the subject with the rest of the board, finally grouching, "So we're giving it away for free," only to be reminded that the EDA was required to get at least assessed value.

Marcia Ward declared that she was "totally against this concept [which] reeks of back door negotiations, closed door negotiations." These are strong opinions, but at least Ward is a commissioner elected to have such opinions and use them to guide policy for the county. She could be proven right, and reelected, or wrong and perhaps replaced.

Chuck MacLean, on the other hand, is County Attorney, and is not elected to have opinions about or his own agenda for the county, at least not in the area of building policy. However, any reasonable person following this issue would suspect that he is delivering legal opinions mainly designed to advance an agenda for the county which has little to do with his duties as County Attorney, much with his ambition as an empire builder.

If Mr. MacLean would like to persist in that, it is fair to ask him to resign as County Attorney and run for county commissioner.



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