Our View: Red Wing mayor shouldn't serve two masters
Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan says he doesn't see a conflict interest between his new job as a lobbyist for the frac-sand industry and his role as an elected official.
The trouble is, a lot of people do.
One Red Wing resident described the situation succinctly. "How can you represent citizens and the industry at the same time?" asked John Tittle, a member of Save the Bluffs, a citizen's group opposed to frac mining. "It seems like it would be a conflict. It seems kind of obvious."
Egan said there are no applications before the city for frac-sand facilities and, more important, the city passed an ordinance in October that essentially bans frac-sand mining. If a new frac-sand project is proposed, Egan said he will recuse himself from the discussion.
"In my mind, there's not a conflict,'' Egan said.
Still, the Red Wing mayor's role as executive director for the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council — a consortium of aggregate, trucking and petroleum companies with interests in frac sand and gravel — raises pertinent questions about whether he can balance his employer's interests with his community's.
The Mississippi River corridor is in the heart of the frac-sand boom. More than 100 silica mines and processing facilities have been permitted during the last four years in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. The region has rich deposits of silica sand, the hard, round grains used in hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as "fracking" — to tap hard-to-reach oil and natural gas deposits.
Regulation of the frac industry so far has been largely left up to county, city and township governments, several of which have declared moratoriums of silica mining and processing while the environmental concerns are studied. At the state level, a Minnesota Senate committee has scheduled a Feb. 19 hearing for bills on sand mining.
Red Wing City Council President Lisa Bayley said part of the agenda for this coming Monday's council meeting is to discuss what position the city should take on frac-sand issues at the Legislature. Will Egan, who has registered in St. Paul to lobby for the sand council, recuse himself from that discussion?
Bayley and another city council member, Peggy Rehder, said Red Wing will continue to deal with issues regarding truck traffic and barge loading of frac sand from the city-owned dock. Will Egan, whose new employers rely on trucking and shipping to move silica sand, recuse himself from those discussions, too?
Rehder, a former lobbyist, said she wants the city attorney to issue an opinion as to whether the mayor has a legal conflict of interest.
"Would I ever be a lobbyist and hold public office at the same time?'' Rehder said. "No."
We agree with Rehder. Despite Egan's explanation, he must avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. And it's not as if he's a lame-duck mayor with little time left in office. He was re-elected in November, so he could be wearing two hats for a long time.
Egan's choice is simple: Resign as the sand council's lobbyist, or step down as Red Wing's mayor.