WINONA — Accusing Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman of an abuse of power, Winona County Commissioner Steve Jacob took to the public comment period of Tuesday's county board meeting to say he would not be "bullied" into silence.
“I believe the county attorney is attempting to silence me,” Jacob said. "I will not be intimidated, bullied or have my voice silenced."
In a March 1 letter to Jacob, Sonneman wrote, "you have ignored Winona County's Respectful Workplace Policy, the Behavioral Ground Rules, and potentially exposed Winona County to liability by showing inappropriate behavior towards others."
That behavior, Sonneman said, included criticizing and/or making negative comments in front of third parties regarding other county board members; making destructive, dysfunctional and hurtful comments toward members of the board or other departments; behavior that "irritates or torments a person persistently" such as comments pertaining to the county's animal unit cap or possible violation of the state's open meeting law by other members of the county board.
Finally, Sonneman wrote that she believes Jacob's comments could lead to legal action against the county or himself.
"I ask that you give serious consideration in how you conduct yourself," Sonneman wrote.
Response to Sonneman
Jacob sent a response on March 3 that read, "(My) gut tells me that it is you that is trying to use your position of authority to silence me, and in turn, Winona County District 3."
He wrote that there are three members of the county board who have been "dragging Winona county (sic) through the mud by colluding with (Land Stewardship Project) and each other."
In the fall of 2018, commissioners Greg Olson, Marie Kovecsi and Chris Meyer, who had been elected but not seated at the time, worked with LSP to find individuals biased against a proposed expansion project for Daley Farm, a Lewiston-based dairy, and place those individuals on the Board of Adjustments. In December 2020, Judge Kevin F. Mark called the process and the actions of the BOA "severely tainted."
It is that process, Jacob – as well as Commissioner Marcia Ward – has said, constitutes a violation of the open meeting law that prohibits members of an elected body from meeting in a quorum to discuss policy or make decisions on items that will come before the board.
In his response letter, Jacob added, "It is important to me that others know that I am not part of the collusion and that problem. No letter from you is going to prevent me from defending my reputation and making it clear to the public that I am not a part of what you appear to be defending with these 3 commissioners. It is my opinion that it is your responsibility to prosecute those 3 commissioners for their wrongdoing, but you choose to defend them."
Jacob said he believes Sonneman was using her position to join in colluding with the three members of the board who represent the city of Winona.
"It is offensive to me that you hide behind sending emails under the shroud of being 'confidential,'" Jacob wrote. "I feel this emboldens you and that you have grown to abuse that power and use it to bully people like me because you feel you are above being reviewed by the media and the public."
Discussion with Sonneman
On Tuesday, Sonneman said her letters to Jacob and Ward were not intended to cite any findings of violations of the law by either commissioner but to warn them of where their comments might raise legal concerns for the county.
A bigger concern is that the case of Daley Farm vs. Winona County still has a scheduled hearing, and that while the judge has ruled on the case, Sonneman said she prefers to be overly cautious when it comes to managing the risk of litigation against the county.
"This is a matter that will come before the Board of Adjustment again, once the litigation is complete," she said. "The litigation is not closed, but it’s not my aim to silence the free speech of elected officials."
Sonneman would not say whether she had sent similar letters of warning to commissioners Olson, Kovecsi and/or Meyer regarding their collusion with LSP. She did, however, say a review of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law shows the trio did not violate the law because Meyer had not been sworn in and seated on the board when the behind-the-scenes dealings with LSP were happening.
Media and communications law attorney Mark Anfinson agreed, saying that while the meeting of the trio with LSP might look like a violation of the spirit of the law, the law itself is clear that individuals must be a member of a public body for a violation to occur.
"You can conspire away as much as you want to," Anfinson said. "It's very clearly not a violation."
Ward asked the board to agree to a working group meeting to discuss the county's Respectful Workplace Policy and how it does or does not apply to county board members. That request will be placed on a future agenda.
Ward complained that a list of transgressions laid against her in a letter from Sonneman were anonymous and did not allow her to reply to her accuser.
Sonneman added that the policy, while a guideline for behavior, has no mechanism for punishing county board members who violate the policy.
"The only ones who can decide if they’ve done something wrong is the voters," Sonneman said.