From: Greg Gaut
One of the low moments in Winona’s recent political history came at a County Board meeting chaired by Wayne Valentine on November 5, 2013. A public hearing was scheduled on the controversial changes to the land use ordinance proposed by commissioner Steve Jacob. Jacob sought to undo the progress that the board had made before he was elected.
Before the hearing, questions were raised about whether Jacob’s proposals might benefit his own real estate investments. One local newspaper editorialized that Jacob should “uphold the ethical requirements of elected office by being completely transparent.” The paper warned Jacob that otherwise he would face conflict of interest questions at the hearing.
But it was not to be. Valentine began the meeting with a prepared speech that set the ground rules for the hearing. Most of it was standard fare: speakers had to wait their turn, act respectfully, and stay within the two minute time limit. Valentine, however, went much further: he told people what they could and could not say at the podium.
He told the audience that they could not make any comment about a commissioner having a potential conflict of interest or failing to disclose information. Nor could any speaker pose a question to a commissioner. If anyone tried to exercise their right to free speech in those ways, Valentine said that, after sufficient warnings, he “may then cut off that person.” He also said that such a person may even “be removed from the meeting at the direction of the chair.” In other words, if citizens asked Jacob a question, they might be ejected.
It’s still an open question why Valentine thought Jacob was so in need of protection from citizens’ questions that the First Amendment had to be suspended. What is clear is that Wayne Valentine acted like a petty autocrat that night. This called into question his fitness for public office in a democracy. Fortunately, people have the right to vote and Valentine is up for reelection.