As St. Louis County officials attempted to rein in Amazon purchases in favor of buying supplies locally earlier this month, Commissioner Keith Nelson condemned Amazon purchasing in a mass email said to have disturbed many county employees.
The News Tribune obtained Nelson’s June 3 email from the county this week following a Minnesota Data Practices Act request. As it appeared originally, Nelson’s email said:
“My question is simple why in the **** are we using amazon. If people are having difficulty finding things locally please contact my office I would be happy to get our area chambers involved, they pay taxes here. Commissioner Nelson."
Nelson’s self-censored email was a reply-all response to an email from the county purchasing director reminding employees of a board directive to purchase supplies locally whenever possible. Roughly 2,000 people received Nelson's email, including 1,800 county employees.
The county spent roughly $147,000 on Amazon purchases last year — a relatively minuscule 0.05 percent of the county’s $271 million in operating expenses, according to data provided by the purchasing department. County employees are allowed to use Amazon through a business account when items cannot be found locally. But local purchases are encouraged and preferred.
The purchasing email to employees emphasized that point by saying, “While there may be a small cost difference between local and online please attempt to partner with our local businesses whenever possible.”
Aftermath of the controversy played out last week, when a union official and some of Nelson’s peers condemned his email during June 11’s County Board and committee of the whole meetings at the St. Louis County Courthouse.
“The disrespectful comments were taken very hard by many employees … and seen as dismissive,” social worker and AFSCME Local 66 president Dennis Frazier told the County Board. Nelson left his chair and retreated to a conference room adjacent to board chambers as Frazier spoke from a lectern facing the board.
The News Tribune reviewed video of the committee of the whole meeting recorded by Duluth Public Access Community Television. In it, Nelson defends his email before later being scolded by Commissioner Beth Olson.
Olson said county employees didn’t deserve to arrive at work to face what she described as a "hostile" email.
“It was so disrespectful to them,” she said. “They would never be allowed to act that way in a professional workplace.”
She encouraged the board to set a tone of respect and appreciation. Nelson defended his email.
“What I said in the email that I sent out to every county employee, I absolutely meant every word I said — every word,” Nelson said. “What in the hell are we doing buying off of Amazon? So, I won’t apologize for it and don’t ever expect me to.”
Over the course of several minutes, Nelson lectured about how he doesn’t personally use Amazon package delivery and how constituent businesses on the Iron Range are “shriveling on the vine” in the face of alternative purchasing habits. He said using Walmart and other big-box stores is preferable to Amazon since those entities pay property taxes critical to funding the nearly $394 million county budget.
Making the point the county has consistently supported buy-local initiatives, he said county vehicles are purchased locally, often beating prices from state-authorized vendors, and that U.S.-made steel is used in county-built projects.
“Unfortunately, I don’t believe that some of our labor body is listening,” Nelson said.
Board Chair Patrick Boyle encouraged Nelson to avoid using email in the same manner again and to address matters through board processes.
“It’s just so passive-aggressive,” Boyle said of email, adding repeatedly that the board would “take one bite of this apple,” meaning it would not formally address the matter again. Multiple other commissioners remained silent on the issue.
“It is at best puzzling why other commissioners and department heads have not spoken out against this,” Frazier said. “To speak up against disrespect and wrongs is very important. Silence when something has gone wrong is acceptance of that wrong.”
Olson pointed out that the purchasing department had already begun the process of correcting unnecessary Amazon purchasing and that Nelson subverted the process with his email.
“I don’t think anybody on this board disagrees with buy local,” said Olson, who represents western Duluth.
In her own email June 3, Olson thanked the purchasing department for its professionalism and said, “I am sorry that someone on our County Board treated you so disrespectfully.”
Thirty-three minutes later, according to time stamps on the emails, Nelson responded to county employees by email again.
“Opinions are. Just like noses everybody has one,” he wrote (syntax intact).
Nelson and Olson both said they received numerous responses from county workers. Most were positive, some critical, Nelson said.
“I expect when I put myself out there I will get criticized by some,” he said.
Olson characterized the responses to her during committee of the whole proceedings by saying, “They felt undervalued and disrespected. Some even used the word abused. They are our employees and we are very responsible to them. I will stand up for our employees. They do not need to work in a workplace environment like that.”
Following the comments from fellow commissioners, Nelson attempted to cast himself as being silenced by board peers — though there was no formal censure or action taken against him and none expected, sources said.
“If I don’t have the ability to speak, then 28,000 people are not represented on this board,” he said, referencing the population of his district. “That’s OK. That’s your choice.”