Comments from Commissioner Keith Nelson at a Sept. 24 meeting in Ely reverberated Tuesday when St. Louis County commissioners met again in Duluth.
Nelson’s comments were raised by Commissioner Beth Olson.
“Last week when I made (meeting) comments, Commissioner Nelson followed up by saying he wouldn’t apologize for being white, he would not apologize for being male and I didn’t hear one person asking him to apologize for that — certainly not me,” Olson said during Tuesday’s County Board meeting. “(T)here’s an expectation that leaders in our community will understand their own privilege whether that comes from being white, comes from being male, whether that comes from being straight or able-bodied or any of the other privileges that some of us have.”
Olson went on to say “Commissioner Nelson mocked and ridiculed me,” at the Ely meeting for being featured in a News Tribune story in May. Olson alleged Tuesday that Nelson “showed his true colors.” She called on the county commissioners to undergo training on what she called "culture, privilege, oppression and power."
Nelson confirmed his role to the News Tribune after Tuesday’s meeting had adjourned.
“The only thing she left out today was ‘poor,’ white and male,” Nelson said. “I’m not going to apologize for having worked my ass off to get where I am, OK?”
Nelson said he "took the bait" in Ely after Olson had telegraphed her Tuesday no votes against a series of building naming dedications. Olson voted against three naming dedications on principle, saying she wanted a policy on naming before voting on any of them. Her announcement of the no votes first came during committee of the whole discussion Sept. 24 that County Administrator Kevin Gray described Tuesday as “healthy, strong discussion.”
Nelson pointed to his record of having pushed for sensitivity training for all county employees in 2018 — coming when he was board chair, and at the peak of #MeToo movement and allegations against former Sen. Al Franken. The county confirmed the training sessions and that Nelson pushed for it. The training was titled “Creating and Maintaining a Positive Working Environment.” Nelson attended that training and another, in 2008, titled “Respectful Workplace” training.
“Those are my values; that’s what I put forward,” Nelson told the News Tribune. “You get used to being attacked by Duluth when you’re a Range commissioner."
He continued to frame the issue as a divide between the politics of Duluth and those who live outside of it. He also spoke to opportunity and privilege.
"I believe we make our own opportunity — that is not the case of people who have limited capability physically," he said. "That's a different game. People that don't have physical or other challenges, you know what, pull your boots on and go to work."
This was the latest clash between the two commissioners, who seem to have held a summerlong butting of heads.
After Nelson emailed all county employees to ask “why in the **** are we using Amazon,” in June, Olson called the email “disrespectful” and “dismissive,” citing conversations she had with employees.
The recital of the meeting in Ely overshadowed Tuesday's dedications, which passed favorably with Olson’s lone no votes.
A bridge in the township of Camp Five, County Bridge No. 347, will be named for the late James “Ding” Holter, for his “special dedication” across 39 years in county public works. Also, new county buildings in Virginia and Cook will be named for late Commissioner Elizabeth “Liz” Prebich and David Skelton. The buildings came from the same $46 million bonding project. The Virginia building is already open and a ribbon cutting in Cook is coming this fall. Nelson spoke glowingly of the 14-year commissioner, Prebich, who was also a county social worker.
"I struggled every day to keep up with her work ethic," he said.
Skelton was in attendance Tuesday. He was hailed a transformative figure across 33 years, finishing as deputy director of the public works department. He was responsible for numerous modernization projects, including ushering in construction of several joint facilities that brought agencies under one roof. Skelton said it was ironic his name will go onto a building he didn’t help design and build. But he’ll drive past the building on County Road No. 115 in Cook on his way to the lake every weekend, he said.
“It’s a little bit overwhelming,” Skelton said. “You just don’t expect that kind of recognition. You just do your job. I think it is pretty amazing that I’ve been gone 12 years, so you think anything I’ve done good or bad when I worked here would have been forgotten."
After the meeting, Skelton sought out Olson for a private sidebar. The exchange appeared sincere and cordial.
“This has nothing to do with you or your history — you are worthy of the recognition, more than worthy and I support recognition for you and I want that to be really clear,” Olson said during Tuesday's meeting, speaking to Skelton in the audience. “But a lot of that history leaves out a whole lot of people in our community, because they did not have the opportunity to be in positions where they can make some of that transformative change.
"A lot of people of color, native people, and women as well, who have not been in high positions and been able to get to those places — yet. … As we put things down in history we’re going to miss a whole lot of people who have made significant contributions to our community that maybe don’t rise to the level of our attention right at this moment.”