by ZACH KAYSER
Two letters of reprimand alleging violations of county policy, one each from the Winona County Attorney to a different member of the County Board, brought a longstanding dividing line in county government more sharply into focus. One commissioner, Steve Jacob, responded to the allegations with his own allegations that county officials were trying to silence him and his constituents.
The conflict’s backstory is that of the Daley Farm case, where the county’s denial of the farm’s expansion request resulted in a lawsuit. Leading up to the denial, three Winona County Commissioners — Chris Meyer, Marie Kovesci and Greg Olson — coordinated with the environmental group Land Stewardship Project to appoint decision-makers that, a judge ruled, the commissioners knew in advance would oppose the Daley Farm expansion. “The rules were clearly broken,” Olmsted County District Court Judge Kevin Mark declared. Marcia Ward and Jacob, conversely, backed Daley Farm and supported the expansion.
In a letter dated March 1 and subsequently obtained by the Post, Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said Jacob “ignored” both the county’s Respectful Workplace Policy and Behavioral Ground Rules — as well as risked the county being sued — through “showing inappropriate behavior towards others.”
A similar letter was sent to Ward.
The Respectful Workplace Policy prohibits “violent behavior,” defined as “the use of physical force, harassment, intimidation or abuse of power or authority when the behavior causes pain, fear or hurt.” It also prohibits “harassment”, defined as “behavior that irritates or torments another persistently. This behavior may imply systematic persecution by besieging with repeated annoyances, threats, or demands. The behavior may be synonymous with badgering, pestering, hounding, or baiting.”
The Behavioral Ground Rules stipulate that all attendees of the meeting must follow the Respectful Workplace Policy. Additionally, it says that attendees should not interrupt or talk over each other.
Before she described the alleged misconduct on the part of Jacob, Sonneman said that regardless of whether county employees and election officials liked each other or agreed with each other, “our behavior cannot be blamed on others.” “How we react to people and situations is totally within our control,” Sonneman wrote.
Sonneman went on to cite Jacob’s comments criticizing other County Board members at the Dec. 10 board meeting and said they cast a negative light on the county. She said Jacob was at fault for “making destructive, dysfunctional, hurtful comments about another person and/or department and/or encouraging negative behavior or attitudes.” Additionally, Sonneman alleged that at an Aug. 14, 2019 Township Officer meeting that dealt with the county’s farm-size limit, Jacob violated policy by “[i]ntimidating and/or abusing power or authority by causing fear, pain or hurt.”
Sonneman declined to specify to the Post which comments Jacob had made that supposedly violated the policy.
At the Dec. 10, 2020, County Board meeting, Jacob got into a verbal altercation with Meyer. The argument originated in a topic that was tangentially related to the Daley case. The board was discussing whether to switch to a rotating chair instead of electing one; the chair controls appointments to subordinate committees like the Board of Adjustment (where the Daley lawsuit originated). Meyer said it would be out of order to vote on the topic, as it had not been put on the meeting agenda.
“I think it’s quite clear you’re trying to influence this again, Commissioner Meyer,” Jacob said. “Let’s see how that plays out.”
‘Taking the podium’
The letter from Sonneman to Ward had a very similar list of alleged incidents as Jacob’s, with one notable exception: The letter referenced Ward “taking [the] podium at the Dec. 10, 2020, County Board meeting and making unsupported statements about County Commissioners while acting in the capacity of County Board Chair.”
Back at that hot-button board meeting in December, Ward had indeed gotten up from the dais where she normally sits as board chair, walked over to the podium normally used by members of the public and guest speakers, and delivered remarks in response to a Post article about the Daley Farm case.
“I need to speak out,” she began. “I learned long ago in my political career early on, if I say nothing, [that means] I agree with what is happening. I don’t want to do this, but I must. As a taxpayer, local elected official, and board chair, I must speak out about the recent article written in the Winona Post by Chris Rogers. Public trust. It is the basis of all our county commissioner work. Has the public trust been violated? Has a majority of the Winona County Board colluded [with the] staff of a volunteer advisory committee? Has the process been manipulated to advance the agenda of a special interest group? The perception of wrongdoing by [board] members is problematic.”
Ward went on to say that the board should return to the rotating chair system, and that zoning applicants like Daley Farm should be treated without bias. She then went back to talking about Meyer, Olson and Kovesci.
“By legal advice, three of my colleagues are not answering questions in regards to these allegations,” she said. “That’s totally understandable. Our county attorney has a duty to represent the full board and the county. Has there been collusion? Violations of [the] Open Meeting Law? If we don’t have clear, concise answers, will the public be able to trust the Winona County Board?”
Ward called for an independent investigation into Meyer, Olson and Kovesci’s actions. She said that later in the meeting, she would move that Sonneman contact the office of state Attorney General Keith Ellison “to help determine if a violation of collusion and open meeting laws occurred, and if any actions need to take place.”
Response to reprimand
In a response letter to Sonneman, Jacob directly accused Olson, Meyer and Kovesci of breaking the law.
During the Daley case, it came to light that Meyer, Olson and Kovesci communicated with LSP about switching the County Board chair position from a rotating position to an elected one, in order to appoint people to the Board of Adjustment who would be sympathetic to LSP’s argument against Daley Farm. Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law disallows “serial meetings,” wherein a series of smaller, private meetings pass on information to a quorum of elected officials, whose meetings are required by law to be open to the public. Sonneman had said earlier that it did not technically count as a serial meeting because Meyer had not yet taken office as a commissioner. Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney and Open Meeting Law expert Mark Anfinson said Sonneman is correct.
Jacob claimed the three commissioners’ actions related to the Daley Farm case were “in clear violation of open meeting laws.”
“I refuse to be intimidated by you, cover for you, or cover for the [three] county commissioners that have squarely been caught red handed colluding, causing liabilities for Winona County and embarrassing the Winona County board,” he told Sonneman.
The reprimand would actually strengthen the Daley Farm’s case, he said.
“No letter from you is going to prevent me from defending my reputation and making it clear to the public that I am not a part of what you appear to be defending with these [three] commissioners,” he said.
An awkward County Board meeting
Jacob and Ward both spoke on the reprimands during the March 9 County Board meeting, with Sonneman sitting just feet away from them. Jacob made his remarks in his own defense as part of the forum normally reserved for members of the public.
Jacob went on to say that Sonneman’s actions in reprimanding him heightened polarization in the county. “I believe that it is because of my refusal to cover for the other commissioners, and the county attorney herself, that the county attorney is attempting to silence me, bully me, and violate my First Amendment Rights.”
After Jacob sat down, Meyer then chimed via video chat to respond.
“I want you to know, and I want the rest of the board to know, that I am going to continue to protect Winona County, and the taxpayers of Winona County, by not discussing litigation,” she said. “If I was thinking just about myself, and my own welfare, I would speak out in my defense. But instead, I am going to continue to take the advice of our paid legal counsel. I have asked several times, and I’ve asked in different ways, that all commissioners abide by our policies and our agreements. The first of these is our Respectful Workplace Policy … and part of that policy states that we will listen without making accusations of fellow commissioners, and, I would add, especially when they’re based on innuendo and newspaper clippings.”
Ward, in her remarks at the tail end of the meeting, said she had been reprimanded as well.
“It’s kind of odd — in a court of law, you’re allowed to see all the evidence that’s presented against you if you’re being accused of something,” she said. “I question our policy and I question our procedures. So I really do feel that they need to be reviewed. Not knowing who filed this, I cannot follow the Behavioral Ground Rules [which say that] ‘We deal with problems or concerns in a timely manner by going directly to the person or the department that is involved.’ I do not know who filed this report. I did have a conversation with Attorney Sonneman, she [says] that it came through the Personnel Department, and she edited the letter and signed it and presented it to me ... I have no idea how to work with this directly.”
Ward moved, and Jacob seconded, to put a review of the Respectful Workplace Policy on a future agenda.
‘Democrat versus Republican’ and ‘rural versus urban’
In an interview with the Post, Sonneman said that while an employee could face discipline for violations of the county workplace policies, there was nothing the county could do to enforce them in the event of an elected official breaking the rules. In a practical sense, elected officials like Ward and Jacob are accountable only to their constituents, she said. Sonneman framed her letters to Ward and Jacob not as her accusing them of wrongdoing, but as simply a vessel for a complaint from an offended third party, whom she did not name. She described the feud between commissioners as a symptom of broader divides in the nation and state.
“These days there is this sense of the extremes, both in the national scene of Democrats versus Republicans but unfortunately, in Minnesota as well as other states, there’s the rural versus urban,” Sonneman said. “They’re still a commissioner, as far as I’m concerned. So I think discretion sometimes is a concept that we’re losing in the civil discourse.”