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County's legal counsel uphold planning appointments

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news Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne and the county's outside counsel have rejected a COLA challenge to planning and zoning appointments made in late 2012.

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The appointments were to the Hubbard County Board of Adjustment and Planning Commission.

The lakeshore activists contend the appointments should have waited until a new county board was seated in 2013. Otherwise the appointments disenfranchised newly sworn board members, who make and/or vote on those appointments.

Coalition of Lake Associations member Chuck Diessner and president Dan Kittilson maintained the new board should undo the appointments and take a fresh look - and vote - on prospective board members. Kittilson addressed a letter to the board Jan. 4 saying the 2012 board had no authority to appoint the members.

"COLA's just talking about the procedure," Diessner said, indicating the individuals appointed were not part of the disagreement.

He pointed to two ordinances and the Planning Commission's by-laws as reasons the appointments were not proper.

"Government doesn't shut down because of elections in November," Dearstyne objected. "Government continues."

He said the practice has been that the 2012 county board not only appoints vacancies to fill various committees and boards, it also must set the budget for 2013.

"I find no support for the assertion of the COLA in its letter o f January 4," wrote outside counsel Scott Anderson, who does legal work for the county's Environmental Services Office.

"They have apparently received some bad legal analysis," Anderson's letter continues. "Instead, the appointments appear to me to be valid and within the authority of the Board of Commissioners."

The Planning Commission, a nine-member board, is made up of appointees from each of the five commissioner districts, the county board vice-chair, who is Kathy Grell, two at-large appointments and a member of the Board of Adjustment.

It was the at-large appointments COLA was challenging, along with a November 2012 appointment to the Board of Adjustment to fill another vacancy.

That seat was vacated by Earl Benson.

"I figured after 10 years I'd had enough," Benson said as his reason for resigning with one year left on his current term.

He said the clashes with COLA members the past three years were not the reason he left.

"Oh, you kinda get used to them," he said of the disagreements.

Newly elected commissioners Matt Dotta and Dan Stacey still have to appoint planning board members from their districts.

Just how much public input there should be was debated.

In the past, board president Cal Johannsen said, the county board members have taken it upon themselves to find and appoint members to those lesser boards from their own districts.

Some commissioners and COLA suggested a public application process, advertising the vacancies much like a job interview.

That approach was not followed up on.

The two candidates will be presented at the Feb. 5 board meeting to be voted upon.

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But the subject of COLA influence on the various county boards is rife with disagreement.

According to Dearstyne, the COLA representatives appeared earlier in the Tuesday meeting during the "public comments" section to take issue with an Enterprise story written about their objections to the appointments.

"They said they weren't trying to influence the appointments," Dearstyne summarized.

But county officials have grown weary of the constant COLA input and pushed back.

Johannsen suggested Tuesday COLA input is a quandary for the county, but he doesn't want to "cut them off" like past president Dick Devine did.

"It's a question of who's running the county, the board or COLA," said retired commissioner Lyle Robinson on Thursday.

Dotta has been pushing the county board to make its dealings more transparent, and insisted coordinator Debbie Thompson make public the Jan. 4 Kittilson letter, which had not been provided to the media.

And transparency appears to be part of COLA's issue as well.

Kittilson maintained advertising for important board openings might attract more qualified applicants, especially since those boards have important decisions over property rights. It would also alert the public to the vacancies. COLA has sued the county in the past when boards deviated from county ordinances in making those decisions.

Kittilson has frequently told the board the groups want to work together, not against each other.

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One example of that came later in Tuesday's meeting.

The county board allocated $35,000 toward the fight against Aquatic Invasive Species.

Administered by the Soil and Water Conservation District, the county, lake associations and SWCD will combine once again to hire watercraft inspectors at many public access points throughout the county. The lion's share of the funding comes from lake associations. County board members, although agreeing that tainted waters are a state problem, authorized the one-time funding for the 2013 summer.

Board members want to keep pressure on the state to fund the program and have said they worry the state will back away from its obligation once the county steps up.

"I would like to thank the board for its support on this," Kittilson said after the vote.

"We realize it's for an important issue but we don't feel it's our issue," Johannsen said.

"We don't either," Kittilson agreed.

"We should have put it in with the Vikings stadium budget," Dearstyne said to gales of laughter.

In other action, the board:

n Authorized a board member to sit on the Water Management Task Force 2013 Committee and asked for an updated list of committee members.

n Approved a Conditional Use Permit by Lakes Area Vineyard Church to conduct services at the former North Point Lodge on Highway 34 east of Park Rapids.

n Asked Solid Waste Superintendent Vern Massie to seek prices on reconditioning the transfer station trash compactor versus purchasing a new one.

n Reminded the board and public that a hearing will be held Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. to discuss the county's Capital Improvement Plan, which includes the second phase of courthouse renovations. The plan would entail issuing $3.665 million in bonds.

n Approved an agreement with labor unions on health benefits for married couples that would not discriminate against employees who are married to each other.

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