County wages civil war on itself over veterans

Richard Thomas 

Northeast Regional Corrections Center
Northeast Regional Corrections Center

At the Feb. 6 Committee of the Whole meeting, St. Louis County commissioners considered a resolution to support the Veteran’s Treatment Court application for grant funding.

Sounds uncontroversial, right? Forget it, Jake! This is St. Louis County!

The Minnesota court system has six “specialty courts”: Adult Drug Courts, DWI Courts, Family Dependency Treatment Court, Juvenile Drug Court, Mental Health Court and Veterans Court. They use different strategies than traditional courts to reduce repeat offenses: extended probation, more frequent appearances before judges and probation officers, jail time broken into segments, regular alcohol and other drug testing. They also connect clients with social services and peer support.

Not all of these courts are available in every county. St. Louis, being the largest county in Minnesota by square mileage, has some of these courts in the north (Virginia) and some in the south (Duluth). South has Adult Drug Court, DWI Court and Mental Health Court. North has a Drug/DWI Hybrid Court.

In South St. Louis County there has been an informal version of Veterans Treatment Court since 2014. It started out as a scheduling convenience, suggested by the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. Over time components were added: pre-court collaborative staffing, a Veterans Administration representative on-site and a mentor program. The county, City of Duluth, UMD, Arrowhead Regional Corrections and more signed on as partners. 

In 2016 the partner agencies decided to formalize the court, with representatives taking training and drafting a policy manual and handbooks. Now that the steps have been completed, the court is ready to apply for an implementation grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Administration and officially become the real thing.

“The local veteran population is approximately 10,000 in the Duluth area,” wrote Judge Dale O. Harris in a letter attached to the proposed resolution. In 2015, there were 31 veterans facing felony sentences. Of those, 29 were chemically dependent and 22 had mental health issues. “Our goal is to connect veterans as soon as possible to treatment/community resources they might not even know exist, while maintaining a culture of accountability, consistent with their military background,” Harris wrote.

So Judge Harris asked the county commissioners to pass a symbolic resolution of support for this grant application, basically putting in a good word to the Bureau of Justice. And who’s against helping veterans? 

But this court will be located in South St. Louis County. And there’s the rub. Having this service in the south but not the north offended northern commissioner Tom Rukavina.

“My office is in Ely, Minnesota. I have the highest per capita (of) veterans in the entire United States of America in World War II and the highest killed in action … Fourteen people in Ely were on the Bataan Death March. And I read this accompanying letter that says there are 10,000 people in the Duluth area. So once again are we gonna be applying for a grant that helps people in Superior and Duluth, in Cloquet, and Two Harbors, and that’s fine. I have no problem with that. But what about the people in Ely and Cook that were veterans? 

“I know a lot of them. They gotta drive a hundred miles if they’re in this court system. So to me, this isn’t ready for prime time because I think there should be one county, I keep hearing this around here, we’re one county, but most of the time, we really aren’t one county if we’re going to do something just for South St. Louis County.”

He brought up an unrelated, but similar, complaint. “Where our constituents get their first DWI, they’re on two years probation. In Duluth, Minnesota, in the same court, in the St. Louis County judicial system, they get one year probation. Now, Minnesota brags about the fact that we have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the state, but they don’t tell you the flip side. We are the fourth highest in the nation in people on probation. We have a huge percentage of our population on probation … A third of all our prisoners in Minnesota are in jail not because they did anything bad, but because they didn’t call in, they violated their probation. So all of this stuff weighs on me … I can’t vote for this today because it totally excludes my veterans from being involved because they gotta drive a hundred miles from Cook or farther.”

Board chair Keith Nelson said, “I’d like to point out the drug court started in Virginia, Minnesota, then went to Duluth. The alcohol court piloted in Duluth. We then put that court in Virginia. Now I couldn’t agree more with providing this service throughout St. Louis County. But if we could get it started down here, and this is a successful model, our past history indicates that we have been able to implement this in other courthouses. Keeping in mind that this is not a decision the St. Louis County board is gonna make. This is a decision that the courts are going to make. And it is not the St. Louis County courts, it is the state of Minnesota court system, it is the judicial district that not only takes in St. Louis County but also takes in Carlton, Lake and Cook.”

Rukavina: “We could solve this by just putting another further resolve that Judge Harris works with the judge in Hibbing and and Virginia to put the program in North St. Louis County. Is that too much to ask?

Commissioner Beth Olson: “They’re asking for a letter of support, not for input into the design of the program that we don’t have any control over. They’re not asking that we employ any positions or spend any money on it.”

Rukavina: “The Arrowhead Regional Correction Center -- we pay 82 percent of the bill -- will hire an employee, I think on our property taxes. We pay, if I’m not mistaken, $14 or $15 million a year to Arrowhead Regional Corrections. And so you’re telling me we don’t have a say in this? I think we do.”

Nelson: “I’m almost certain I’ll be in trouble with at least one commissioner for this following statement, but you know,  all 15 year and going on 16 years, working with my friends here in Duluth, I did not hear my friends here in Duluth arguing that spending $46 million on buildings in northern St. Louis County was parochial … Commissioner Rukavina, you are not the only one who fights for St. Louis County. And it bothers me greatly. I don’t fight for anyone, I work for them.”

Rukavina: “You can’t change history … You didn’t work with Frank Jewell the last time he ran for office, that’s when you supported his opponent, and I remember the clashes between you and Melanie Ford, so what I’m doing is no different than some things you’ve done in the past. And I really am angered by the fact that when I was talking you said go through the chair because up at our workshop up at Pike Lake, all day long I raised my hand to Chair Olson, you just started talking, so I learned that lesson from your example. So please don’t tell me how how you work with Duluth because I’ve seen you work hard against them also. You can’t change history, it’s been recorded, I saw you ... in Ely where you had a unanimous vote in support of the copper nickel mine. You had a resolution, I wasn’t on the board, I was running for the board. You had a unanimous vote and you asked for a roll call vote to put a couple of Duluth commissioners on the spot, and I saw one of them who happened to be sitting next to me, squirming and squirming and I saw the other one finally vote the way you actually wanted him to vote. So don’t sit here and lecture me about your cooperation with Duluth … The reason we don’t put a lot of jobs that should be up north, the reason we don’t put ‘em up  north is because the county seat is in Duluth, and it’s just like a corporate headquarters … Let’s vote, if you don’t want to take my suggestion, further resolve, Judge Harris works with the judges in Hibbing and Virginia that implement the program in Northern St. Louis County court system, fine. Don’t take it.”

Commissioner Mike Jugovich suggested drafting a letter to the judges, at a later date, suggesting that the Veterans Court be periodically moved up north. Nelson suggested writing to the district chief judge suggesting that if the program is successful in the south, it should be expanded to the north. 

Rukavina wasn’t placated, saying he’d seen too many promises to the north go unfulfilled.

Olson said, “When you have to put together federal grant, when you have to put together a planning, you go through a three-day planning process with a whole group of people.” She said changing the resolution might have a negative impact on the grant application.

Rukavina was the lone yes vote on his suggestion. On the resolution of support for the Veterans Court grant, he was the lone no vote.