West Duluth and neighborhoods beyond will be looking for a new St. Louis County commissioner in 2020, as Beth Olson told the News Tribune on Monday that she will not seek reelection.
Elected to represent the 3rd District in 2016, Olson is both the only woman and openly gay member of the board.
“Having somebody like me on the board is really important,” Olson said. “That did make it (the decision) difficult for me.”
Olson described a yearning to return to the voluntary sector. Prior to public office, Olson was the executive director of First Witness, and had spent time at Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs and Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault.
“The community is where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “That’s where I belong. That’s where I can be the most impactful and effective, and that’s where I want to be.”
She said she does not yet have a job awaiting her. She will fill out her term, which expires Jan. 4.
Four commissioners’ spots are up for election in November, including the 2nd District, representing the east side of Duluth, the 5th District, representing the city of Rice Lake and Hermantown area, and the 7th District, representing Hibbing and the southwest corner of the county.
Second District Commissioner Patrick Boyle has already announced he will seek reelection. Fifth District Commissioner Keith Musolf and Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, have not yet announced their intentions.
County Administrator Kevin Gray described Olson as a strong advocate for county staff, in particular supporting women in leadership roles and ensuring a respectful workplace for all.
“Beth has been a valued member on the County Board, and I’m going to miss her unique perspectives,” Gray said. “She is an extremely intelligent, committed and hardworking leader, bringing good insights about public safety, financial management and the lens through which we conduct business and serve our citizens.”
Olson has notably clashed with 6th District Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Eveleth, throughout the past year on issues such as refugee resettlement consent, and the county’s $16.6 million contribution to the Arrowhead Regional Corrections budget.
But the 49-year-old Olson’s decision was made outside of those issues, she said. In 2018, she dealt with the suicide deaths six weeks apart of the father of her 22-year-old daughter and another dear friend. Beyond grieving, those tragedies caused her to reevaluate her own life and how she wanted to live it.
“I move fast,” she said. “In any organization, if you look back at my career track, I build things fast and I move fast. It’s not that I don’t feel like I haven’t been effective, it’s just not at the pace I want, and not in all the areas I want.”
Olson handily defeated Jay Fosle in the 2016 election. She capitalized on a campaign promise her first year when she brought the County Board and delegation of state legislators together for the first time in 20 years. Those meetings now occur annually, and helped lead to sweeping opioid response legislation authored by Rep. Liz Olson of Duluth.
“When I first brought up that we needed to change the way we’re relating to our state delegation, people told me no,” she said.
Olson hopes to finish her term strong, bringing up the refugee resettlement consent vote the board tabled until May 26. Despite a judge’s order that has nullified the Trump Administration’s executive order in which counties consent to refugee resettlement, Olson believes it’s important the county follow through with the vote.
“We have to take a vote,” she said. “We’ve heard from people, and we tabled it and made people wait and now people need an answer to the question of, ‘What kind of community do we live in?’ Do we live in a community that allows for this, or do we live in this hateful place.”
Olson, who will remain in Duluth, said a vote in favor of inclusion is personal for her.
“As a gay person,” she said, “I see it as if you’re willing to do this to them, you’re willing to do this to me.”
This story was updated at 5:21 p.m. Feb. 17. It was originally posted at 12:25 p.m. Feb. 17.