by CHRIS ROGERS
In Winona County’s ongoing tug-of-war between property rights supporters and environmentalists, citizen appointments are always a battleground, but next week the County Board could take the debate to a new front.
For the last four years, County Board members have taken turns serving as chair of the board. But now, with influential appointments to the Planning Commission hanging in the balance and the Daley Farms’ proposal for a dairy feedlot expansion coming up, County Board member Greg Olson has proposed scrapping the rotation schedule.
Most of the year, the chairship comes with many responsibilities and few privileges. The chair has to stay late after meetings to sign contracts and other documents. The chair is responsible for running meetings and moderating discussion, and, according to the board’s decorum, the chair is expected to give the rest of the board a chance to weigh in before speaking him or herself. However, while many important appointments are made by the full County Board, under state law, the chair alone makes appointments to the Planning Commission, the group that considers zoning ordinance changes — such as the frac sand mining ban — and conditional use permits (CUP) — such as the one the Daley Farms would need to expand its feedlot.
The County Board unanimously agreed to rotate the chairship based on commissioners’ districts in 2015. First, commissioner Steve Jacob (district three) served in 2015, then commissioner Greg Olson (district four) passed on his turn in 2016, saying he did not want to be chair. In doing so, Olson gave up an opportunity to make Planning Commission appointments. The rotation skipped ahead to commissioner Marie Kovecsi (district two) in 2016, and commissioners Jim Pomeroy (district one) and Marcia Ward (district five) followed in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Last fall, Pomeroy retired from the board, and commissioner Chris Meyer was elected to the district one seat.
In a recent memo to the County Board that largely focused on when newly elected commissioners would be sworn in, County Attorney Karin Sonneman mentioned a state law that states, “The County Board, at its first session in each year, shall elect from its members a chair and a vice chair.” At the County Board’s last meeting, Olson suggested that the rotation schedule may be in conflict with this law. Sonneman’s memo did not comment on that question.
In a roundabout way — by endorsing the rotation schedule — the County Board has elected a chair, Olson said. But that does not reflect the will of the voters, he argued. He suggested that the County Board “explore going back to what I think the statute intended,” and vote on who should be chair. Kovecsi seconded Olson’s proposal, and now the County Board will discuss the issue and decide who should be chair at its meeting next Tuesday.
With Kovecsi and Pomeroy, Olson has been part of an urban, three-member majority that tended to vote in favor of stricter environmental protections. Meyer has espoused similar views to Pomeroy on those issues.
Rural commissioners Jacob and Ward tend to vote in favor of property rights over strict environmental protections. Under the rotation schedule, Jacob would be chair next year.
The County Board will meet on Tuesday, January 8, at 9 a.m. to discuss the chairship and which citizen volunteers to appoint to the Board of Adjustment, which would also play a role in granting local approvals for the Daley Farms’ expansion, if approved by the state. As the Winona Post went to press, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was preparing to announce its decision on whether to permit the feedlot expansion.