by CHRIS ROGERS
In the wake of a judge’s ruling that chastised the Winona County Board’s handling of committee appointments, the same County Board is gearing up to make new appointments to committees that handle important and sometimes controversial land-use decisions.
On January 5, the County Board is slated to vote on who to appoint to the Planning Commission and the Board of Adjustment (BOA) and who should be the next chair of the County Board. The chairship matters because the chair alone appoints Planning Commission members, while the full board appoints BOA members. Both bodies are called on to make important decisions that affect the environment, the economy, agriculture, and lives of local residents. These appointments are sometimes contentious, as environmentalists and property-rights supporters jockey for control of the committees. This year’s appointments come after revelations in the Daley Farm’s recent lawsuit raised new questions about the appointment process and a pending court decision could send the Daley Farm’s expansion proposal back to the BOA.
In 2019, the Daley Farm sought an exception to local zoning rules — called a variance — to allow it to expand its dairy farm in excess of the county’s limit on farm size. Just before that variance application, in January 2019, County Board members Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson voted 3-2 to scrap a rotation system for selecting the chair in order to appoint Kovecsi over County Board member Steve Jacob. Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson appointed critics of the Daley Farm’s major feedlot expansion project to the Planning Commission and BOA, and a few weeks later, the BOA voted down the Daley Farm’s variance request. BOA members are supposed to act as impartial judges, but emails and other records uncovered in the Daley Farm’s lawsuit showed that two BOA members were actively involved in a campaign to oppose the Daley Farm project led by the environmental group Land Stewardship Project (LSP). The records indicated that LSP staff lobbied Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson to scrap the chair rotation and appoint those opponents of the Daley Farm project.
“Greg [Olson] sounds totally solid and unwavering,” an LSP staff member wrote in one of the emails, summarizing a phone call with Olson. “A good call. He’s expecting to hear from us this weekend on our committee recommendations.”
“[Chris Meyer] is confident that, although it will be a very testy board meeting on January 8th, that she and Marie and Greg will prevail on the board chair issue,” the same LSP staff member wrote, summarizing a phone call with Meyer ahead of the 2019 decision. “She is concerned about the issue being played out in the press before hand. Please don’t share this via e-mail with others. Chris is real nervous about e-mail trace-ability, track-ability, etc.”
After reviewing the evidence, Olmsted County District Court Judge Kevin Mark ruled, “I think the record is clear that [those BOA members] got placed on the BOA in a conscious manner with the forethought to oppose a particular application for a variance that was going to come before them. And this just can’t be. It can’t be that way.”
How will the County Board handle appointments this year? Kovecsi said LSP staff did not contact her regarding appointments or the chairship this year, and she maintained that LSP have never done so. “Not that I know of,” she stated.
A December 2018 email from an LSP staff member summarized a conversation with Kovecsi: “Marie is feeling quite confident about the board chair situation and that Greg and Chris will be with her … Marie has confirmed that she’ll meet with us on Friday at 8:45 at the Bluff County Co-op meeting room in back. She wants to go over committee appointments with us.”
Kovecsi said she hasn’t discussed appointments or the chairship with other County Board members this year. “I think we’ll all come together and make some choices,” Kovecsi stated. “Last time I voted against the rotation option [for chair]. To me, it was an experiment that didn’t quite work.”
Meyer said that LSP staff have not contacted her regarding the upcoming BOA and Planning Commission appointments or the County Board chairship. She said she has not talked with other County Board members about appointments and has only discussed the chairship with one other member. The Minnesota Open Meeting Law allows two County Board members to talk about county business outside public meetings but not a majority of the board, which is three members.
Kovecsi and Meyer declined to comment on who should be the next chair. Meyer said she wouldn’t discuss the issue because of County Board member Marcia Ward’s recent accusations that Meyer and other board members might not have followed the Open Meeting Law when considering appointments and the chairship ahead of the Daley Farm decision.
This year, there are two openings on the BOA. The applicants for those slots include Jordan Potter, a construction foreman and solar power professional who ran for County Board in Olson’s district’s this fall and was knocked out in the primary; Lewis Reiman, a Fremont Township farmer who previously served on the county’s Economic Development Authority; Kelley Stanage, a longtime Planning Commission member who spoke out against the Daley Farm expansion; and Kelsey Fitzgerald, an organic farmer and co-op grocery staff member.
There are two openings on the Planning Commission. The applicants include former member and small business owner Arlie Herber, insurance professional and local Qigong master Jeff Larson, as well as Potter, Reiman, Evanson, and Fitzgerald.