WINONA — Be kind. Be respectful.
It sounds simple, but the Winona County Board has, now on multiple occasions, had to formally discuss the need to be nice to each other during the course of meetings and in public comments.
Why don't these individuals get along?
Taking The Pledge
At Tuesday's Winona County Board meeting, Commissioner Chris Meyer asked that all commissioners pledge to follow the county's respectful workplace guidelines during meetings and when discussing other commissioners in public. All five agreed, but that's an increasingly rare feat for the Winona County Board of Commissioners, which can't seem to get through a meeting without a 3-2 vote on something.
And each time, the three and the two are the same commissioners.
"I haven’t done anything I’m ashamed of, and I’ll continue to do the right thing," said Commissioner Steve Jacob, who along with Commissioner Marcia Ward make up the "2" side of the voting equation.
The obvious – and often commented upon – difference of opinion between Ward and Jacob, and commissioners Meyer, Marie Kovecsi and Greg Olson is that the latter three represent districts that mainly cover the city of Winona, while the former two represent largely rural, agricultural districts.
"There’s a lot that’s been said about differences between urban and rural," said Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. "We’re aware of the fact there are different perspectives between representatives based on where they live."
Hurting Rural Winona County
Bob Schell, the former mayor and current city council member of Altura, said the divide in the county comes on several levels, but in many ways it can be defined along the political spectrum. The city of Winona is much more liberal, he said, and the rural parts of the county are more conservative. And the representation on the county board reflects that.
That divide shows itself in discussion and voting differences on topics such as a ban on silica sand being mined for the end use of fracking or the proposed expansion request by Daley Farm in Lewiston.
“This thing with the Daleys is just the tip of the iceberg," Schell said.
Schell pointed to unintended consequences of the battle the Daleys have fought to move their plans forward. They've been to court several times, most recently when a 1st Judicial District judge ruled against Winona County's denial of a waiver of the county's animal unit cap. The judge, Kevin F. Mark, said the county had colluded with Land Stewardship Project to pack the Board of Adjustments with individuals who were biased against the Daleys and their project.
"Marcia and Steve, they have been pushed around on this," Schell said. He added that the three commissioners from the city must have known their position was not the will of the county residents "if they’re going behind the scenes with these emails."
With the number of dairies and dairy cows dropping in the county in recent years, Schell said the county board should be doing all it can to promote more agriculture, not block it. That shrinking agricultural base means a harder business climate in small towns in Winona County, a hit to the tax base, and a shrinking rural population.
In his town of Altura, he said, that can be seen by a smaller pool of individuals to pick from for the volunteer ambulance service, which is down to 10 members.
'It Makes Me Sick'
Ward, the board chairwoman and longest serving member, said most of the 3-2 fights are over planning and zoning issues.
"The city does not have to comply with our planning and zoning," Ward said. "They live by a different set of rules than we do, but they make the rules out here. They don’t have feedlots in the city of Winona."
Ward added that having commissioners who do not own or operate farms, like she and Jacob do, lecture her on environmental issues is "an irritant to me."
"You think I don’t want to be environmentally good to my animals and crop land?" she asked, rhetorically.
Still, the divide and the calls for respect will likely continue. On multiple occasions, Kovecsi has reminded Ward to refer to her as "Commissioner Kovecsi," a sign of respect the board has agreed to. And Meyer asked that commissioners listen respectfully to one another's opinions.
But Ward pointed to the recent decision in the Daley case where evidence was presented that the three urban commissioners worked together against the Daleys and, possibly, she said, in violation of the state's open meetings statutes. That action, more than anything, has destroyed the public's trust in the Winona County Board.
"It makes me sick," she said. "I cannot tolerate those actions within my board."
What is disrespectful behavior?
According to the Respectful Workplace Policy of Winona County, there are four main categories of disrespectful behavior.
Violent behavior: Includes the use of physical force, harassment, intimidation, or abuse of power or authority when the behavior causes pain, fear or hurt.
Discriminatory behavior: Includes inappropriate remarks about or conduct related to an employee’s race, color, creed, religion, national origin, disability, sex, marital status, age, sexual orientation, or status with regard to public assistance.
Offensive behavior: Includes such work-related actions as rudeness, exclusionary behavior, angry outbursts, inappropriate joking, vulgar obscenities, name calling, disrespectful language, or the intentional filing of an unfounded complaint under this policy.
Harassment: Includes behavior that irritates or torments another persistently. This behavior may imply systematic persecution by besieging with repeated annoyances, threats or demands. The behavior may be synonymous with badgering, pestering, hounding, or baiting.