County Board member and property rights advocate Steve Jacob and citizen environmentalists clashed again last Tuesday, and Jacob turned to his fellow Winona County Board members for advice on how and whether to rein in the Parks and Environment Committee without being "bullied" by its members. Committee members stressed that their group is purely advisory and said the County Board should listen to their perspectives, not squash them. Among commissioners, tensions between the board's rural majority and urban minority over committee appointments were momentarily rekindled.
The Parks and Environment Committee is a citizen advisory committee to the County Board charged with overseeing county parks, solid waste programs, and environmental initiatives. The group was originally formed solely to oversee the solid waste program. In recent years, it grew to take on newly formed county parks and to organize environmental initiatives.
Jacob argued that the scope of the Parks and Environment Committee has grown too broad and that some of the committee's goals are not shared by the board: preparing for and mitigating climate change, installing solar arrays on government buildings, and strengthening rules limiting bluff development.
Amendments to the zoning ordinance that eased bluff setbacks for pre-existing properties were approved in a split vote last fall. In the wake of legal threats this spring, the board unanimously voted to cease participation in any solar projects. In an apparent reference to former county administrator Duane Hebert, who was fired for alleged malfeasance in connection to a proposed solar project, one of the committee's proposed action items reads: "communicate to [the] board that [the] behavior of a single employee should not jeopardize county efforts to generate solar power."
Those goals directly contradict County Board decisions and seem to be "circumventing the work" of the Planning Commission and Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, Jacob said at the board meeting. "We specifically had the Planning Commission work through public hearings on the zoning ordinance, and then [the Parks and Environment Committee] takes action here to overturn that work that's been done," he added, referring to the contentious exceptions to bluff setbacks that were permitted as part of zoning ordinance amendments.
"I do not think [the Parks and Environment Committee members] have taken actions to overturn anything," Pomeroy responded. Aside from a small budget for maintaining county parks, the Parks and Environment Committee does not generally take action on its own. "Anything that they do has to go before the board for approval," Pomeroy said. If they proposed things that are not approved by the board, that is fine, he added.
Perhaps the difference of opinion on the Parks and Environment Committee "has to do with the fact that they feel they don't have a voice on the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee or the Planning Commission," suggested Pomeroy. Last spring, Parks and Environment Committee members Chris Meyer and Phyllis Frisch applied to serve on the steering committee and were not appointed. Pomeroy and commissioner Greg Olson tried to appoint former Planning Commissioner Jessica Heiden to the steering committee, but their motion was rejected by Jacob and commissioners Marcia Ward and Wayne Valentine. After that, Olson cast a protest vote against all of the board's appointees. Last December, Olson and Pomeroy advocated for appointing Meyer and fellow Parks and Environment Committee member Todd Paddock to the Planning Commission. Ward appointed nominees supported by Jacob and Valentine: Arlie Herber and Joy Fabian-Ewing.
A 'punching bag' for 'special interest group'
As a board, "What signal are we sending [to the Parks and Environment Committee]?" Jacob asked. "Are we sending any signal? Or do they just get to do whatever they want, however they want? To me it feels a little bit like the county is facilitating a special interest group [by hosting this committee]." He continued, "If I don't say anything I think they're moving forward with solar [power] on government buildings." If I do say something, "it's a pretty hostile environment in there," he commented. "I really get bullied in that environment." Jacob said that after bringing up agricultural buffer strip requirements at a recent Parks and Environment Committee meeting, "I had to just sit there and be their punching bag."
Jacob and citizen members of the Parks and Environment Committee have had heated arguments since Jacob was appointed to the advisory committee this year by Ward, an appointment Jacob and former liaison Pomeroy both vied for. Jacob and the citizens have argued over the committee's goals and subjects such as whether climate change is manmade and whether the committee should address it. In response to Jacob's bullying concerns at the County Board meeting last Tuesday morning, Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman passed out copies of the county's "Respectful Workplace" policy at the Parks and Environment Committee meeting that afternoon. "I wanted to make sure this committee got [copies of the policy] because we've had some turbulence the last couple months," Gilman said. Committee Chair George Howe acknowledged recent meetings had been tense. "Even if someone says something outrageous or upsetting, count to ten, state a contrary opinion if you wish. It'd be good not to swear," he advised.
Parks and Environment Committee member Todd Paddock asked Jacob to tell the committee about the board's discussion of the group earlier that day. Jacob explained that the board had concerns about the group advocating for solar power, but said that if he speaks up at meetings, he feels "ganged up on." Jacob pointed to a recent conversation about buffer strips as an example. (See "County slowly enforces buffer rule" in the July 2 edition of the Winona Post.) "I don't think I spoke for two minutes and it was 45 minutes of each one of you going around indoctrinating me," Jacob said.
Jacob started the conversation about buffer strip setback requirements from streams by asking whether committee members commiserated with farmers' frustrations about the requirement; the committee simply answered the question, Paddock replied.
It is good for the committee to get feedback about what the County Board wants, Howe and Paddock agreed, but the committee's job is to share different ideas and perspectives with the County Board. Referring to Jacob's time with Landowners of Winona County prior to his election, Paddock said, "Steve, you've been on the other side of this. You had a point of view that wasn't in keeping with the majority of the board, and that never stopped you. And it shouldn't. We're like that, too. We have perspectives and they're valuable. We give advice. That's all we do."
At the board meeting earlier that day, Ward observed that while the committee may only offer advice, it is not free advice since one to three county staff members attend each committee meeting. "The things they're discussing are not bad things, but I wonder if the County Board wants to narrow the scope of what we're asking them to use county resources to discuss," she said. There are more pressing county matters they could be addressing, such as what will happen to the recycling contract, and whether the county can develop a program to recycle silage bags, she added.
Gilman acknowledged there are issues with dedicating staff time to the committee if the committee and the board are giving different directives. "What's going to happen is they're going to want to direct staff to do projects, and staff are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place," he said.
Ward said that advisory committees should not have the authority to direct staff to conduct projects.
"You certainly hate to throttle down the passion" of the committee members, Olson said. "But when you mention that they direct staff to do studies and expend resources without board approval, yeah, that's a problem."
Board will have final say
Johnson and Gilman suggested that the committee's mission statement and goals, which are currently being revised by committee members, be submitted to the County Board for approval when they are finalized. At that point, the board plans to further discuss the committee's scope. Both the board and the committee were agreeable. Submitting the mission to the board will be "just the beginning of dialogue," Paddock commented.
Committee nixes 'property rights' mission
Later during last week's Parks and Environment meeting, as the committee suggested final edits to its mission statement, Jacob proposed adding the phrase "balanced by respecting property rights."
"Everything here comes at some cost," Jacob said, pointing to the mission statement's mandates to promote the stewardship and protection of natural resources. Mentioning property rights "would make the statement that we don't just care about these items, we care about people's rights, too."
How about "individual rights?" suggested Paddock. "Why just make it property rights? There are other rights, too … People who don't own property still breath, eat, fish, walk."
How about "individual and property" rights? Jacob replied.
"I'm not sure, as an advisory committee, if we're asked to respect property rights. We are asked to give our professional opinions on the environment and parks," commented committee member and former biology professor Carol Jefferson. The county has attorneys, planners, and groups like the Planning Commission to advise them on property rights, she added. "As soon as we put that in there it will throttle us on our discussion of environmental and public health," she said of Jacob's suggestion. The county is charged with health, safety, and welfare, and the committee's charge is environmental issues, she said.
"I have seen those words be so polarizing — 'property rights,'" Howe commented.
"The phrase 'property rights' is very polarizing in the same way that 'right to life' becomes very polarizing, because there are some of the same things [involved] with it," Meyer stated.
The mission might as well say "we're going to follow the law" because "when you follow the law, you respect property rights," Howe added.
"When you say that you see property rights to be polarizing,
the people on that side see everything else on this list to be polarizing," Jacob responded, pointing to the group's mission statement and goals.