The Politics of Revenge: County commissioners seek to pull funding from Soil and Water Conservation District

June 25, 2013

Richard Thomas
Zenith City Weekly

At a June 11 board meeting, St. Louis County Commissioners Keith Nelson of the Virginia area and Mike Forsman of Ely introduced a resolution to cut off funding for the North St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District.


Led by elected supervisors, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts operate in every Minnesota county, working with landowners and other government entities to manage and preserve natural resources.


During the board’s committee of the whole, such a seemingly uncontroversial program became the subject of angry tirades and bizarre grandstanding by Nelson and Forsman—all because they’re upset with a single Soil and Water employee, Paul Ojanen.


“A person goes from an advisory position and...thinks that they’re gonna be a renegade cop,” Forsman said. “That is where I have my problem with Paul...I don’t think he needs to be a tattletale. I don’t think he needs to be an enforcement officer.”


The object of Ojanen’s alleged “tattling” was C & C Winger, a construction company in the town of Embarrass, about halfway between Virginia and Ely.


According to Forsman, Ojanen told the father of owner Cory Winger—unaware that he was Cory’s father—“I’m going to put [your son] out of business.”


Nelson concurred. “Mr. Winger told me that comment himself and I verified it through a third party...It was so egregious and outlandish, I was taken aback.”


However, Cory Winger’s father, Charlie, told the Zenith he’s never met Ojanen. He heard the comment secondhand six years ago. The Zenith contacted Charlie Winger’s source, who wasn’t sure Ojanen said it.


When informed of this, Nelson stuck to his story. “I know what I heard. I know what I heard Commissioner Forsman say. And I personally heard it, ok? And I will stand by that no matter what.”


The June 11 meeting dwelled extensively on a letter from Ojanen, published in the Duluth News Tribune on December 13, 2011. He criticized Glencore, a Swiss company that owns stock in PolyMet, the controversial copper mining project in northern St. Louis County.


The letter also criticized state support of PolyMet, concluding, “Any government official who would support this project now is shown to be criminal or stupid. Most likely, it is both.”


Nelson and Forsman took this very personally, even though the letter does not mention any county officials.


“Bullshit, ok?” Nelson later told the Zenith. “I have read [the letter]. I have a copy of it. It came out in the paper immediately after we took the vote up in Ely.”


The County Board passed a resolution 4-3 in support of mining, but they did so on December 20, 2011. Ojanen’s letter ran one week before the vote.


Nevertheless, Forsman believes Ojanen and/or the Soil and Water Conservation District owe him an apology for what Forsman calls “a knife in my back.”


“Four of us on this board voted to support mining...[Ojanen’s letter] said...those people that voted for it—and that was me...He called me either stupid or criminal or both, to everyone that reads that rag called the Duluth News Tribune.”


After speaking at great length about the letter, Forsman said, “That would never be part of my decision.”


Even if Ojanen’s letter had referred to the County Board, all of their opinions—including Ojanen’s—are largely irrelevant. The County has little regulatory control over mining projects, which require state and federal permits. Ojanen is not involved with mining either, other than Soil and Water is contracted by Cliffs Natural Resources to aid in stream restoration.


Late into the June 11 meeting, Nelson and Forsman suddenly became conciliatory and withdrew the proposal to cut Soil and Water’s funding.


“I could actually be ok with seeing this initiative go away and watching ’til next year,” Forsman said.


“I’m going to respect Commissioner Forsman’s wishes here,” said Nelson. “But I’m really mad right now...I will tell you that I am going to be watching very, very closely over the next six months and when this comes back up for funding next year, if I have not seen a substantive change, I will be back here.”


Nelson later told the Zenith that anyone who accuses him of being a criminal “had better be ready to fight.”


Asked if he had ever intended to put the resolution up for a vote, Nelson said, “Absolutely not. Administration was informed of that.”


Yet according to County Communications Manager Dana Kazel, if this were true, the resolution would have been listed on the agenda as a discussion item.


Describing the resolution as “a shot across the bow,” Nelson says he “could have gotten it passed...There were four votes to pull the money.”


Commissioner Frank Jewell of central Duluth says this indicates Nelson violated Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law. “A regular refrain from Commissioner Nelson is, ‘I have the votes.’ That he knows he has four votes suggests that he talked to four commissioners, or three plus himself, which is breaking the law.”


The Open Meeting Law does not define what constitutes a meeting. Elected officials may exchange information in groups of less than a quorum (the number required to vote), but trying to determine how others will vote or persuading them to vote a certain way is contrary to opinions issued by the state Supreme Court and the Department of Administration.


Jewell expressed concern that the resolution targets Ojanen simply for voicing an opinion that has nothing to do with his work for the Soil and Water Conservation District. “This is a slap-down for somebody for their right to speak out.”


For his part, Ojanen denies Nelson and Forsman’s allegations. “I do not go around looking for violations. Our duty is written in the Wetland Conservation Act. It goes through multiple steps, such as the planning office, before it gets to me.


“Once a government unit has decided it is a wetlands violation, my job is to write instructions on a technical order. We give that order to the [Department of Natural Resources], who serves the order.


“If something can be restored, I give instructions. [The law] doesn’t give me options, like, ‘Give someone a break because he’s a good guy.’”


Ojanen says people do get angry with him, but that’s just part of the job. “I am the one writing the order in these situations, so of course I am causing difficulty. I am the person instructing them how to comply with the law, so the focus is going to be on me. But it needs to be made clear there is a law and it has been around for two decades and not two days. It is very clear on what it says to do.”


Cory Winger’s case was brought up in 2008 by the County Planning Department, which issued a cease and desist order. The County Attorney’s Office handled the prosecution and finally dismissed the case in 2011.


Winger’s attorney, Paul Haik, is critical of what he sees as Ojanen’s arbitrary and inadequately documented procedure.

 

Assistant County Attorney Gordon Coldagelli commented in 2009, “With all due respect to Mr. Ojanen, his opinion [regarding] the freshness of the fill and the weed growth isn’t enough.”


However, Haik says the problem is more systemic and statewide than just about Ojanen’s performance. According to Haik, state law authorizes conservation officers to issue cease and desist orders concerning wetlands, which can effectively stop a company from doing business. Minnesota is the only state that allows this without first securing a court or administrative order. In 2005, these powers were expanded to include groundwater quality as well.


Nelson claims to receive 20 complaints a year specifically about Paul Ojanen, but he could not produce any proof of them, saying only, “I know you’re going to write an article that is absolutely anti-mining.”


Then Nelson doubled-down, claiming Ojanen is the cousin of his own boss, Soil and Water Board Chair Peggy Pearson. “So nepotism is alive and well and living in North St. Louis County.”


At least this rumor is true, if dubiously pertinent. Ojanen acknowledged that Pearson is his cousin, but “there were 42 of us grandchildren, so I have 38 first cousins,” including one violator in his own district.


Pearson told the Zenith the commissioners’ recent outburst won’t change the way things are done in the North District. “We have to go by law.”


There may be legitimate concerns about the scope of authority granted to Soil and Water Conservation officers, but Nelson and Forsman’s reasons for proposing to cut its funding amount to a curious tangential sideshow. The evidence against Paul Ojanen is about as solid as the rumor that Paul from The Wonder Years grew up to be Marilyn Manson.

 

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