Duluth 'a cesspool,' commissioner says as St. Louis County Board begins rocky start to 2021
In a break from tradition, rural commissioners consolidate authority atop the board, leaving Duluth commissioners out of top leadership posts.
The city of Duluth was referred to by Commissioner Keith Nelson as a “cesspool" on a day rural commissioners both ruled the St. Louis County Board and illustrated north-south division at its annual meeting Tuesday.
The rural majority made Chisholm’s Mike Jugovich the unlikely board chair for a second-straight year, and prevented Duluth’s three commissioners from leadership posts atop the board.
“It feels really good that my colleagues had confidence to vote me back in,” Jugovich, reelected in November, told the News Tribune. “I thought it was strange, but we’ve had a strange year.”
Ely’s Paul McDonald joined Jugovich by winning the vice chair position at the meeting in Duluth.
In putting two Iron Range commissioners at the top, the County Board broke with the recent tradition of toggling chair leadership annually between rural and Duluth-based chairs. The board also denied what normally had been a split between north and south representation in the chair and vice chair posts.
In her first meeting, the new commissioner for western Duluth, Ashley Grimm, opposed Jugovich as chair in a 6-1 vote. She cited the break with tradition as her reasoning.
"Even though there's not a rule against it, there has been a clear tradition set," she said.
Rural members of the board had made previous mention in meetings of Jugovich getting a raw deal in 2020, having to face the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He didn’t really get to be a chair in my eyes,” Commissioner Keith Musolf said Tuesday.
For vice chair, the vote was 4-2, with Jugovich, Virginia's Nelson, Musolf and McDonald voting favorably; Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, and Grimm voted against it; and Frank Jewell, representing downtown and central Duluth, abstained because he said he didn’t want to vote against McDonald.
“So we are going to go all-Range, it sounds like. Sounds like it’s a Range deal, am I correct about that, Commissioner Jugovich?” Jewell said, alluding to a decision having been made beforehand by the rural commissioners.
Jugovich denied a prearranged situation with the News Tribune, saying a new gavel even featured Musolf’s name engraved on it for the assumption that the commissioner representing the areas surrounding Duluth would rise to the chair as a compromise pick since last year’s vice chair and normal successor, Duluth’s Beth Olson, was no longer on the board.
“I think everyone felt that was the direction the board was going to go,” Jugovich told the News Tribune of Musolf.
Musolf told the board personal matters wouldn’t allow for him to be chair, leading to only Jugovich drawing a nomination.
Though Jewell approved, he called Jugovich’s ascension to the head of the board “questionable,” and sparred with rural commissioners throughout the meeting.
At one point, Jugovich questioned Jewell's motive to want to lead the board's finance committee.
“It seems like you may be upset about something else and this could be how you come back,” Jugovich claimed to Jewell, before the board majority gave Nelson the chair of its finance committee.
Duluth's Boyle sought to appeal to the rural commissioners after saying he, too, thought the majority had dealt amongst themselves prior to the organizational meeting.
“What we need to do as a board is get away from who’s Range and who’s Duluth,” Boyle said, adding that the rural majority had the power to “mend” divisions during a politically volatile time in the country.
“I really feel we should have a close relationship between Duluth and the Range,” Boyle said, failing to sway the majority to split the chair and vice chair positions between the north and south.
Later in the meeting, Nelson illustrated the north-south divisions that have dogged the board. He called Duluth “a cesspool” after Duluth commissioners questioned why an elected commissioner was annually appointed to the county’s planning commission — a type of body that is often made up of non-elected citizens in other jurisdictions.
Jewell demanded Jugovich address the “cesspool” incident.
“Commissioner Nelson regularly and consistently name-calls the city of Duluth and I would ask Chair Jugovich as our chair to stop that,” Jewell said. “The language he just used in describing the city of Duluth is unacceptable and has been unacceptable for a long time.”
Of the comment, Jugovich told the News Tribune: “Keith probably crossed a line there." Jugovich added that he talked to Nelson about it after the meeting.
“He said he won’t do it again,” Jugovich said.
Nelson, the board’s representative on the county planning commission, accused Jewell of putting his nose where it doesn’t belong in rural planning business.
"I desperately try not to put my nose into this cesspool when I don’t have to," Nelson said.
Nelson cited Jewell's criticism of a gravel pit approved last year in Fredenberg Township which Nelson said has elicited a lawsuit against the county. The county confirmed that a lawsuit has been rumored, but not yet filed.
“Every decision you make you have naysayers and one of them is my fellow commissioner,” Nelson said of being a member of the planning commission. “In the future, I will try not to call this city a cesspool.”
The chair and vice chair posts do not give Jugovich or McDonald any outsized authority or power.
Instead, beyond the clout, the biggest responsibility comes in running the meetings. The chair also determines committee assignments for the year and has the ability to appoint subcommittees on special topics. Additionally, the chair can have the option of a “chair’s initiative” — some kind of theme they want to highlight at meetings throughout the year.
Last year, Jugovich started a subcommittee on rural substance abuse and mental health, but the pandemic response didn’t allow for much progress along that line.
The News Tribune asked Jugovich about the ongoing north-south division.
“At times everybody feels there’s a division, but we work together and there’s times we work well together,” Jugovich said. “We don’t always get along all the time, but we do have the best interests of St. Louis County at heart — and that shows with the things we do together to provide valuable services, and projects we work on to make St. Louis County a better place to live and raise a family.”
Recent St. Louis County Board chairs:
2021 Mike Jugovich
2020 Mike Jugovich
2019 Patrick Boyle
2018 Keith Nelson
2017 Frank Jewell
2016 Steve Raukar
2015 Pete Stauber
2014 Mike Forsman
2013 Chris Dahlberg
2012 Keith Nelson
This story was updated at 4:31 p.m. Jan. 5 to include Keith Nelson's full "cesspool" quote. It was originally posted at 3:57 p.m. Jan. 5.