In Monday's Star Tribune, Matt McKinney looks into local government mischief in Frac-sand debate tears SE Minnesota county apart; Ethics investigation finds Houston County official threatened opponents, and the story demonstrates why the citizenry is up in arms:
A zoning official here wielded his power to retaliate against people who opposed frac sand mining, an independent investigation found, slapping frac opponents with bogus zoning violations, threatening to tear down their house or cabin and, in one case, warning a frac opponent that she should “watch what she says” or risk getting cited.
His targets were people who had spoken out at public meetings or sent letters to the Houston County Board to complain about the encroachment of frac-sand mines, an issue that’s torn the county’s social fabric as the local government wrestles with how to manage the emerging and potentially lucrative industry.
The official, Bob Scanlan, was suspended for three days and given mandatory ethics training as a result of the investigation ordered last summer by the County Board of commissioners and conducted by Minneapolis law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen.
The findings were made public recently, when the county released a redacted version to the Star Tribune. Today, Scanlan presides as the county zoning and planning director and acts as a key official in the county’s ongoing deliberations over sand mining.
What's perhaps just as outrageous is the defense of Scanlan by a county commissioner:
Commissioner Judy Storlie said she believes Scanlan is a good employee who’s being harassed at his job by people opposed to sand mining.
Take that, peasants! Should a public employee threaten you (contacting your employer, threatening to pull your house down) when you seek to have ordinances protecting your property enforced, your act of registering a complaint is harassment.
Lovely. Storlie sounds like the type who'd nominate Scanlan for a Nobel Peace Prize.
But there's even more. McKinney reports:
Until he got a judge to help him, Bryan VanGorp couldn’t walk on some of his property because it would violate a restraining order filed by a neighbor.
The order was ostensibly about VanGorp driving across his neighbor’s rural property to check on someone else’s cabin, but it came amid frac sand mining argument that found VanGorp, a retired veterinarian, and his neighbor, a Houston County sheriff’s deputy, on opposing sides.
Speaking from his back deck one recent afternoon, VanGorp said he worries about what could happen to him if he bumps into his neighbor at the grocery store and unintentionally violates the restraining order.
The frac-sand debate, he said, has “just blown up the neighborhood.”
Since Bluestem likes to nitpick media reports, bringing completely insignificant details that have nothing really to do with the story, we felt that our readers might enjoy knowing a bit more about this anecdote.
In August 2014, Caledonia Argus editor Daniel McGonigle reported in Citizens express concerns for news cameras, county board related to sand mining:
During the public comment portion of the Houston County Board meeting Tuesday, August 5, several concerned citizens expressed their opinions to the county board.
The citizens were concerned over the county’s support of a mine known as the “Erickson mine.”
A recent DNR decision ordered all mining to stop at the Erickson mine until a trout stream setback permit can be obtained.
The citizens would like the county to “stop defending this illegal permit.”
“You have already spent a huge amount of our money trying to grant one individual the ability to profit at the expense of other citizens and our environment,” said Sue Van Gorp during the comment period. “If one more dollar is spent on this fiasco to favor Erickson over the tax payers of this county we will go big and go public and have you investigated for misuse of public funds.” . ..
Following Tschumper and Van Gorps comments, Donna Buckbee indicated that she is concerned by the treatment her neighbor, Bryan Van Gorp is receiving from Erickson himself.
“We have been on the receiving end of threats and intimidation,” said Buckbee. “Threats to demolish our property and property damage. This is escalating.”
“I need to tell you, your deputy, your employee, Tracie Erickson is escalating his intimidation. I’m in fear for the life of my neighbor, Bryan Van Gorp. I’m in fear for a lot of us, including my own safety, but especially Bryan.
“You all have some responsibility to protect the citizens of this county.”
That's right. The deputy, Van Gorp's neighbor, runs one of the mines at the heart of the conflict. For more on the Erickson mine, we recommend the "News and Information" timeline on the Erickson Mine page at the activist-run Sandpoint Times. While the information hasn't been updated recently, it will help provide a sound backstory to McKinney's closing anecdote.
UPDATE: A kind reader reminded Bluestem of the material related to "Whether the Michelle and Tracie Erickson 19.11 acre mine site is a phased action to the Minnesota Sands multi-site EIS project" in the June 18, 2014 Environmental Quality Board packet pdf.
It's fascinating reading about a mine that has generated the particular anecdote at the close of the Star Tribune story, and names are used. [end update]
For recent Bluestem posting on Houston County, check out Houston County sand storm continues as citizens resist board's loss of courage.
Image: Pitchforks and torches, Simpsons style.
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