From: Todd Paddock
County Commissioner Steve Jacobís proposals to change our county ordinance have created a wide public debate in Winona County that includes strong and often opposing views. This was clear at the Information Meeting last Thursday before the County Planning Commission, where a large audience posed dozens of questions about the proposals. The two remaining public hearings promise more of the same.
But I fear that the actions of Planning Commissioner Don Evanson have biased the process and put the county at risk of a lawsuit.
In 2010, the city of Minneapolis was ordered to pay a developer $500,000 after city council rejected his application to build condominiums. One of the city council members had taken a position on his proposal, helped local residents organize against it, and lobbied other council members before the councilís public hearing and vote. A judge ruled that the council member had made up her mind before the vote, which deprived the developer of a fair hearing and entitled him to damages. An appeals court agreed in 2011 that the councilís hearing was unfair and their decision arbitrary and capricious, but concluded the city was not liable for the damages.
Compare Mr. Evansonís actions to those of that city council member. No public hearing has taken place on the proposals, yet he wrote a letter to the editors of local papers last week stating that he supported them and why they are needed. In that letter, he showed he is unwilling to listen to those citizens who may not support the amendments, calling them a narrow segment of the public. He called for people to attend the meeting to persuade the members of both the Planning Commission and County Board that the amendments have broad public support. And he suggested that people alter the atmosphere of the meeting by carrying something to show their support, although the rules for public hearings before the Planning Commission state that no signs, banners, or disruptive media shall be permitted during the meeting proceedings.
The county attorney has received complaints that Mr. Evansonís actions have prevented a fair hearing and several citizens raised this issue at the Thursday meeting. Mr. Evansonís response was to address County Assistant Attorney Nelson Rhodus and ask if his First Amendment rights were eliminated because he is a Planning Commissioner. He then told the room that he is well known for being active in land-use issues and taking strong public opinions on them, and stated emphatically that he will keeping doing so as a Planning Commissioner.
If this process is allowed to continue as planned, I fear the county may be at risk of a successful lawsuit against it.
County officials should publicly acknowledge the damage to this public process and take action to repair it.