The St. Louis County Board has seen its controversial upcoming Tuesday meeting moved out of Buhl and made online-only. The online meeting will emanate from the Virginia Government Services Center, county administration said in a news release Wednesday.
Meetings at the courthouse in Duluth and other locations throughout the county have been moved online for the past two months, since the county's emergency declaration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We want to make sure everyone is safe," Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing downtown Duluth, said during an online board workshop Tuesday, May 19.
Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, has been adamant the meeting — scheduled for the Buhl Senior Center and set to address the politically charged issue of refugee resettlement consent — should be a physical meeting held in public.
Earlier this month, he described the idea of moving the meeting as "a travesty."
"We listened for many hours on multiple occasions to folks very much in support of this resolution," Nelson said May 12. "I have listened to many hours, too, from constituents of mine that are absolutely not in support. They are asking when do they get their turn?"
The subject of refugee settlement consent had been tabled to Tuesday, May 26, during a board meeting in Duluth in January, following three hours of public testimony. Other board meetings, including one in Hibbing prior to COVID-19 restrictions, have also included several members of the public addressing the refugee resettlement issue. Citizens to date have been predominantly in favor of consenting to refugee resettlement. Only refugees with family members already in the county could be lawfully placed in the county.
The issue of refugee resettlement consent sprang up last winter, after President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring counties to consent to resettlement. Notably, Beltrami County in Minnesota voted against giving its consent. Many counties, including neighboring Carlton County, declined to take it up after a federal judge blocked the order, nullifying the need for boards to act.
Still, because the St. Louis County Board tabled its consent resolution, it will come up Tuesday.
Most board members agreed that safety during the pandemic was more important than filling a boardroom with members of the public.
Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said May 12 that "it would be difficult to be comfortable at a meeting with a lot of people."
"We have to stay the course and lean on our governor and the health experts in our state, including those at St. Luke's and Essentia (Health) that give us weekly updates," Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, said May 12. "I strongly believe counties are the face of public health in our state, and we have to set ourselves up for example. When it comes to public meetings we need to continue to be leaders on this and take this slow and steady. This pandemic is not going away, sadly."
Human Resources Director Jim Gottschald told the board during a workshop Tuesday that the county is planning a "soft-opening" of county courthouses and service centers June 1. Facilities will be open three hours a day to start. The decision could have an impact on a return to physical board meetings, provided social distancing could be enforced.
Regarding the refugee resettlement board meeting, Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, said during Tuesday's workshop: "I want to have a meeting where we have the most input we can get, but that’s probably going to be through (using) technology."
To date, only one comment from a member of the public has been entered into the record during online-only meetings, that coming May 12. County staff and administrators have tried multiple times to broaden online and telephone means to reach the board, but those methods have resulted in little progress.
"We need to have a slick and easy process to participate," Commissioner Beth Olson, representing western Duluth, said earlier this month. Olson added that she would not participate in physical meetings until the governor gives an OK to gather in groups of more than 10.
Throughout the pandemic, commissioners Nelson, Jugovich and Keith Musolf have continued to physically meet in a Government Services Center boardroom in downtown Duluth. The four other commissioners have participated remotely via Webex.
In its news release Wednesday, the county said citizens can submit public comments for the public comment portion or for specific board agenda items prior to the meeting by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 218-726-2110 and leaving a recorded comment, or by raising your “virtual hand” while using the Webex software during the board meeting.