St. Louis County civil war just keeps escalating

Richard Thomas 


Tom Rukavina-Patrick Boyle. Photo credit: Richard Thomas
Tom Rukavina-Patrick Boyle. Photo credit: Richard Thomas

The Minnesota Legislature is threatening to overrule St. Louis County board decisions. That’s dismaying to the majority of the board, but to at least one rebellious commissioner, it’s great.

In February the board found that Commissioner Tom Rukavina has been trying to get a state bill introduced to allow voters to decide whether the county should be split, creating a new county in the north. 

Rukavina, a state legislator himself from 1986 to 2012, represents the county’s fourth district, which covers the entire northern half of the county plus most of the southeast.

No such bill has appeared yet, but on Feb. 27 the board passed a resolution, by a 5-2 vote, rejecting the concept of division. Rukavina and Mike Jugovich, also from the Iron Range, were the two no votes.

Then on March 6, the board erupted over the revelation that a pair of bills are before the state House and Senate that would alter the county’s representation on the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

On the county board since 2014, Rukavina has been consistently vocal about North vs. South grievances. He has brought it up on seemingly unrelated issues such as South St. Louis County having a Veterans Court but not the north. (Feb. 8 Reader) He’s also complained that people convicted of Driving While Intoxicated get two years probation in the north and only one year in the south. (Rukavina got two years probation for a DWI in 2004.)

At the year’s first board meeting in January, Rukavina complained that neither of the county’s two representatives on the Port Authority are from the Iron Range. He nominated Jugovich to the Port Authority in place of incumbent Patrick Boyle. Rukavina withdrew the motion when even Jugovich didn’t support it, but said a solution “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.” (Jan. 11 Reader)

That’s where the county discussion left off. But on Feb. 16 two bills quietly were introduced in the Minnesota Legislature: SF 1039 in the Senate, authored by David Tomassoni, and HF 2238 in the House, authored by Jason Metsa, Rukavina’s successor.

The bill states, “The Seaway Port Authority of Duluth consists of seven commissioners: three appointed by the Duluth city council; two by the St. Louis County board; and two by the governor. The two appointments by the St. Louis County board must include one commissioner who represents the Duluth area and one commissioner who represents an active or former mining area.”

It took another two weeks for county board members to learn about it. The subject came up at the tail end of the March 6 committee of the whole meeting.

“Sometimes I’m reluctant to bring these things up, but folks, we have to talk about them,” said board chair Keith Nelson, an Iron Ranger who rarely agrees with Rukavina. “My understanding is that we potentially have a bill changing the representation on the Port Authority. This board made a decision back on Jan. 2 to appoint members to that Port Authority. My understanding is that the bill that is pending impacts that determination of this board. And I guess I’m asking because I don’t want to go through a whole, big deal again, but if commissioners don’t support that, let me know because I will include that in a letter that I intend to send to the Legislature on that. I guess I’m asking to poll the board right now to find if there’s support for changing the Port Authority membership to force us to put a Range commissioner on there.” 

“What are you asking?” Rukavina said. “We had this discussion and I believe it was brought up that we were gonna go to the Legislature at that meeting and I heard you say, ‘Fine.’ Am I getting that senile that I don’t remember this conversation correctly which was only two months ago?”

“It was somewhat fuzzy how we left it,” said Boyle. “But my assumption is whenever we have a joint idea, it should be vetted thoroughly and then brought as a priority to our legislative group down in St. Paul. I just saw this language last Wednesday at our Port Authority meeting.”

Commissioner Beth Olson said she found out about the legislation last week when she was in St. Paul, lobbying on behalf of the county, and a state representative asked her about it. “I didn’t know about it. In my mind it didn’t come from here and it didn’t come through our legislative process,” she said. “if we’re confusing them about what our priorities are, they’re gonna stop listening to us. I would.”

Jugovich said the issue has been discussed over the past two years but nothing’s been done about it. “I have interest to be on the Port Authority, and I do think both our of representatives do very well,” he said. He suggested changing the wording so as to add a third county rep, so an Iron Ranger could be added without bumping out the current members. “We can make this work if you discuss it.”

“This board has made a decision that didn’t support your position,” Nelson said to Rukavina. “You win some here and you lose some here and you have to figure those things out, but we don’t get to pick up our ball and go to the Legislature and try and change the decision of this county board.”

“The Range and Duluth legislators have always done things on their own for their part of this county and they will always continue to do so,” Rukavina said. To Nelson, he said, “You’ve decided to throw your hat into being a Duluth commissioner instead of being a Range commissioner. So you want to argue with this? You started the argument. You’re the one that put two Duluthians, besides the three Duluth council people who are appointed, to the Port Authority.” 

The commissioners continued to argue even after the meeting adjourned. At one point Rukavina yelled at Boyle, “Patrick, I begged you. You didn’t want to get off on it.”

The Reader asked Rukavina if he spoke to state legislators Tomassoni and Metsa about the bills. “No, I didn’t go down and talk to them at all about it,” he said. 

So how did the matter get to the legislators? “Well, I think both Jugovich and me talked to both of them about it,” Rukavina said. “We were under the impression the rest of the county board was okay with it.”

Jugovich, however, said he had no part in creating the bills. “I don’t know how it officially started but people seem to think it’s attached to him (Rukavina).” 

On the proposal to divide the county, Jugovich said, “I think we’re stronger together. My ‘no’ vote (on the board’s Feb. 27 resolution) really stemmed from wanting study. I think it’s been brought up for probably over 100 years now and I think at some point we should address it completely so we know what the numbers are, how it’s divided, and we can move on.”