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St. Louis County Board won't expand travel reports

St. Louis County commissioners on Tuesday nixed a plan requiring their expenses from outside boards and commissions to be reported back through the county.

Keith Nelson
Keith Nelson

St. Louis County commissioners on Tuesday nixed a plan requiring their expenses from outside boards and commissions to be reported back through the county.

Commissioners voted 5-2 against the plan proposed by Keith Nelson of Eveleth that would have required the county to keep track of how much commissioners travel and are reimbursed for work on board-appointed positions on regional agencies, committees and boards.

Currently, expenses incurred by commissioners serving on those outside groups -- such as the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, Association of Minnesota Counties, Northeast Regional Corrections and regional railroad authorities -- are not reported back through the county, although they are available through each of the agencies.

Commissioners' expenses directly related to county work, such as driving to board meetings or flying to conferences, already are reported.

Nelson said his proposal was made to make county government "more transparent" to county residents. He cited a one-day trip he took to Vancouver to convince an employer to keep a plant open on the Iron Range. He was asked to join the trip by state lawmakers and Iron Range Resources officials who covered his costs.

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"It didn't show up" on county travel expenses, Nelson noted. "It should show up."

But a long, sometimes heated discussion Tuesday clearly linked the proposal's motivation to November's County Board election and reports by the News Tribune last year that highlighted county commissioner travel and related expenses.

The News Tribune reported in September on county commissioner travel records and found major differences between commissioners in how much and how often they travel, for what reasons they travel and how much they spend and are reimbursed.

The report found that, from 2006 through the first quarter of 2010, eight county commissioners were reimbursed for just over $300,000 for travel and meals. Some commissioners racked up thousands of dollars in airfare, hotel and meal costs while others had more than $50,000 in personal car mileage over that period, much of it driving to meetings within Minnesota's largest geographic county.

Nelson said News Tribune reports missed that outside spending by commissioners.

Commissioner Chris Dahlberg of Duluth said it was the News Tribune reports that rallied voters against former Commissioner Dennis Fink of Duluth, who lost his re-election bid to Frank Jewell. Fink incurred by far the highest expenses for travel outside the region.

"I think we lost a good person on the County Board because of this," Dahlberg said.

Commissioners Nelson and Mike Forsman of Ely said they were chastised by constituents after the newspaper reports.

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Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing said the board shouldn't be ashamed of its expenses -- that travel isn't some sort of perk but a necessary evil of the job.

"If you aren't doing this (traveling to important meetings), you aren't doing your job," Raukar said, adding that Nelson's motive was "rooted in historical political issues" and "not substantive" and that the increased reporting back to the county would be onerous for administrators.

"I like the idea of being more open to the public, but I don't think this is the means to do it," Jewell said.

Nelson said after the meeting he would compile all commissioner expenses from outside agencies and boards and make the data available to the public at the end of each year.

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATION
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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