County wages civil war on itself over port

Richard Thomas 

Ships wait outside the Duluth-Superior harbor in early January. Photo credit: Richard Thomas
Ships wait outside the Duluth-Superior harbor in early January. Photo credit: Richard Thomas

At their Jan. 2 meeting, St. Louis County commissioners selected Keith Nelson to serve as county board chair for 2018.

The chair position alternates each year between the north and south parts of the county. Last year Frank Jewell (south) was chair. Nelson (north) was vice-chair, so it's his turn. He's been chair twice before, in 2006 and 2012. Patrick Boyle (south), the new vice chair, will likely chair next year.

Nelson began his term with backhanded praise for his predecessor: "Chair Commissioner Jewell, I have to tell you, I had my reservations a year ago, because I thought that Commissioner Jewell might be just a little too easy on commissioners, okay? And too easy on disruptors and things of that nature. And Commissioner Jewell, you've proved me so wrong."

Jewell took it with his usual unflappability: "I will tell you, Commissioner Nelson, that in some ways this is quiet compared to some meetings that I have chaired over the years, so my experience is, that while you might not have been sure whether I had the whatever to do it, was part of what I've learned over 30 years of chairing meetings."

"I want to tell you a little something about Commissioner Nelson as a chair," Nelson said, referring to himself in third person. "I've never been accused of being too nice."

For starters, Nelson vowed to be strict with start and stop times at meetings, a pledge he would violate later that day when the Committee of the Whole meeting ran 27 minutes overtime.

Secondly, Nelson said, "I want every commissioner on this board to become more engaged in our dialogue here. This is a discussion. This is not an argument, this is a discussion. And I want everyone to be engaged and to engage everyone ... I will not be very tolerant of third remarks, nor will I be very tolerant of retorts, okay? ... We will be very respectful to one another."

The new chair followed up his comments on respect by taking a swipe at Commissioner Tom Rukavina, who formerly served in the Minnesota Legislature. "Commissioner Rukavina, you tell me that you like to work alone, I challenge you to work with every commissioner on this board. Because this is not state government, this is not federal government, here we actually have to get things done."

Rukavina denied ever saying he likes to work alone: "I have to be with someone for supervision.”

The first meeting of the year includes appointing commissioners to 27 different boards and committees: election canvassing, liquor licensing, regional radio, land use and so on. "Our viewing audience does not understand how many other committees we sit on besides the county board," Nelson said. "This is probably the only day of the year that they have the opportunity to really understand our schedule is not four meetings a month, it's more like five to seven meetings a week, along with other things.”

As well it should be, since the commissioners earn $62,096 a year, with additional $1,500 for chair and $750 for vice chair. It’s called a job.

When it came to appointing county representatives to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, Commissioner Mike Jugovich raised a point: From 1968 through 2016, there's been an Iron Range commissioner on that board. Then in 2017, Iron Ranger Steve Raukar stepped down and was replaced by Duluthian Pete Stauber, making it the first time in 48 years that the Iron Range wasn’t represented on the Port Authority’s board. (The other county representative, Patrick Boyle, is also from Duluth.) Shouldn't one of the reps, Jugovich asked, be an Iron Ranger? Rukavina, an Iron Ranger like Jugovich, agreed.

"As long as I've been around there's always been a Range commissioner and a Duluth commissioner on the Port Authority and last year for the first time there wasn't a Range commissioner on there anymore. This morning there are seven ships waiting to get into the harbor and almost all of them are either coming in to get iron ore or leaving with iron ore or turning in limestone or coal. It's a natural resource harbor and most of it has to do with our mines and so I think it's rather unfair that they don't have a Range commissioner on there. I don't know how to solve the problem. Maybe I'll defer to Commissioner Boyle and see what he thinks or Commissioner Stauber who's on there, I believe, for a remaining two-year term." (Last year it was Jugovich who moved to appoint Boyle to the Port Authority, with himself as alternate. Rukavina was the one No vote.)

Nelson is an Iron Ranger, too, but for him, where you’re from isn’t so important as how big a booster you are for mining: "When we had a large discussion about supporting mining in St. Louis County, the commissioner who was in line to be on the Seaway Port Authority was at that point Commissioner (Peg) Sweeney, and she did not support mining, and that position was given to Commissioner Dahlberg because he supported mining. And I would venture to say that we have two commissioners on there right now who are very, very supportive of our mining and our industry and quite frankly, I don't care if they're from Wooden Frog or from downtown Duluth. Just so they support business and industry and the Port Authority, that's good enough for me."

Nelson was referring to 2011, when he proposed the county board pass a symbolic resolution in support of copper mining. The resolution passed 4-3 and Sweeney was one of the No votes, saying she would support such projects when they proved to meet environmental review standards. Either way, the county has no jurisdiction in the matter. Stauber jumped on that wedge issue when he ran against Sweeney in 2012, calling her vote "unconscionable." He won, so we can expect to similar divisive rhetoric in his upcoming 8th District Congressional campaign.

Boyle said, "There's been more action in the last six months on the Seaway Port Authority than there has been in the last 20 years. The big part of that is now the cargo ships coming in with direct partnership with CN (Canadian National Railway) ... It's extremely hopeful what's going on but this is such a really important time to be on that authority. I'd like to continue that and work on it."

Whoa! More action at the port in the last six months than in the last 20 years? Really? No, not really. Iron ore shipments are up by 35 percent over last year, and the cargo business to which Boyle refers is growing. (It’s a new service transferring those big-box containers between trucks and trains and it has nothing to do with ships.) But port business has hardly increased exponentially over the last six months.

Jewell said he nominated Jugovich for the authority last year even though Jewell himself wanted the seat. "I do know that the appointments, these are very political, as it’d been pointed out," he said. "I understand that neither of you is really saying get rid of Commissioner Boyle in this position."

Rukavina said, "Well, nobody's saying that our two commissioners on the Port Authority aren't doing a good job ... Commissioner Boyle didn't support my resolutions dealing with mining, so unless he's had some kind of epiphany, I don't know his strength in support of mining, either. Now, no one can contest the fact that 80 percent of that harbor is natural resource, mostly consistent of our taconite industry. To not have a northern commissioner is to me a slap in the face of the Iron Range portion of St. Louis County, so with that, I'll nominate Commissioner Jugovich."

"Is there support?" Nelson asked the rest of the board.


"Is there support?" he repeated.


"Third and final time, is there support?"


"Seeing no support -- "

Jugovich made an unintelligible noise. "I'm sorry?" Nelson said. "Commissioner Jugovich, I looked up 'til the last half-second, so don't -- just -- future reference, I'm going to be looking, but don't try to surprise me, okay?"

"I will support for discussion," Jugovich said.

"I'm hoping that I don't sit in this chair and listen to north and south all year long. That’s what I’m hoping," Nelson said. "Last year even though the Port Authority doesn't allow it, I don't believe they wanted to allow it, we appointed Commissioner Jugovich as the alternate to this committee ... I waited an awful long time to be on this but I stepped aside because I had people that I knew had an extreme interest and wanted to be there. So I'm absolutely going to be supporting Commissioner Boyle and leaving the slate the same down there."

Jugovich said he preferred to avoid “a very, very painful vote.” But the board needs to look at the issue some time in the near future, he said.

Rukavina withdrew his motion, but said, "What went on last year is totally unfair, and what's going on again this year is totally unfair, and perhaps a solution to the problem … is to go to the Legislature and get another appointment on that board, get a law change and say that at least one commissioner has to be from the Iron Range portion of St. Louis County, because this is pure, unadulterated B.S. what happened here last year.”

He added, to Nelson, “Your argument about Commissioner Sweeney, who I happen to know is a very good lady regardless of her stand on mining or not, and her replacement on that, to me isn't very logical. So maybe the solution to this, and I'm withdrawing my motion, is to go to the Legislature with the support of everyone sitting around this table and say we're gonna get another person on the Port Authority from the St. Louis County Board, and at least one of three has to be from the Range."

Nelson said, "For those who are not familiar with federal legislation creating the Port Authority, the Port Authority serves the county of St. Louis, not the port of Duluth." (The Port Authority was actually created by state legislation.) "And I could be supportive of that because quite frankly many of the other appointments on the Port Authority are extremely political in nature. And I believe that our county commissioners are down there at work. So if there's a desire on this board, Commissioner Rukavina, if you want to bring that, if you want to formalize that with administration and bring it back and make it legislative priority, I'm gonna be supportive of that. Because I've long felt that given county's investment in the Port Authority that we are underrepresented at the Port Authority, knowing that we cannot have more than three members."

It’s a nice thought -- getting the state to add a third county seat to the Port Authority -- but not likely to happen. The Port Authority board has two members appointed by the Minnesota governor, two by St. Louis County and three by the Duluth City Council. It's been that way since it was created in the 1950s. It would take a lot to convince the Legislature to change the law just to settle the county's north-south rivalry.